Thursday 11 January 2018
Today we visited the magnificent base of the new Bishop of London (just thought I'd mention her). Photography is not permitted in the Cathedral itself, but we were privileged to see the Education areas, thanks to the generosity of one of the busy people in the department, so this post is embellished with photos of that area. (And thank you, Roger, for rescuing me from the fact that I had forgotten my camera)
The Education area is spacious (room for 60, but dividable for smaller groups) and decorated with the art works of some of the schools who visit (from every borough, and quite possibly every primary school in London) There are vestments to help with teaching about 'sacred spaces', diagrams and artefacts to explain the remarkable Physics involved in this building and photographs and other sources to explain the history of the building. in 2016, the department collaborated with the Museum of London to remember the Great Fire of 1666 which is, after all, the reason this building exists. Increasingly, the department is allowed to make use of the huge spaces above, with both art and singing workshops taking place in the Quire, and students interacting with, for example, the art works connected with the First World War commemorations.
Our host then took us up to the Triforium, which was a real treat, as we could glimpse parts of the Library, which is housed up here and is available to scholars. Also stored up here are the cartoons by Sir William Blake Richmond, for the mosaics inside the Dome/ We also got a close- up view of the new-ish (trumpet) organ pipes installed at the time of the Queen's Silver Jubilee.
Then, because we were halfway there, we went up to the Whispering Gallery, before reviving ourselves with a chelsea bun in the Crypt Cafe
We had been booked into a guided tour of the Cathedral itself. We should never have imagined that we should be absorbed and interested for over two hours, but so it was. Our charming guide had said we could abandon her at any time, but we felt no inclination to do so. We began at the west end After a few dates (604AD for the foundation of the diocese, fires in 1087 and 1666, this building completed in a snappy 35 years from 1675 to 1711) we were shown the floor memorial to the St Pauls Watch, who began training in 1938 to protect the Cathedral in case of the blanket bombing that people were expecting after the Fascist horrors of the Spanish Civil War. John Betjeman was a member of the Watch, which dealt with many incendiaries, but could not prevent the October 1940 HE bomb which destroyed the High Altar, or the April 1941 damage to the North Transept. Interestingly, Churchill forbade reporting of these two incidents, for reasons of morale.
We then sat in the former Consistory Court, now the Chapel of the Order of St Michael and St George, to hear some of the history of the Cathedral. I'm not going to tell you it all, as this is a blog post not an encyclopedia, but you might not know that the Diocese of London is north of the river only, the Southern part of the town having been first Winchester, then Rochester and now Southwark. The medieval cathedral was larger than the current one, and had a spire as tall as Nelson's Column on top of the Dome, at least until it was struck by lightning in 1561. By the 17th century the whole place was looking rather shabby, and Inigo Jones was hired to do up the west front. What with lawyers using it as a meeting place, and booksellers and book printers using the crypt as workshops, it needed a bit more than that, even before Cromwell allowed the army to stable its horses in the nave. In August 1666, Christopher Wren put forward his plans to tidy up the cathedral, less than a month before the Great Fire ensured a more thorough job would be necessary. Our guide explained that the fire had been particularly devastating because many people had rushed their (wooden) furniture into the safety of the Cathedral; because the molten lead from the roof had cracked the stone; and because the crypt was full of the combustible stores of the book sellers and printers. It's thought that 2,000,000 books went up in the flames.
So far, I haven't really said that the most impressive thing about this huge building is its uncluttered feel. All built to one design, with no changes of style as decades passed, it benefits from Wren's interest in the classical styles he had seen in Paris. Straight walls, no side chapels and no images to speak of, this was the first post-reformation cathedral in the world. The huge planned weight of the dome meant that the side walls had to be reinforced: since buttresses were out of the question in a modern building, there is a 'curtain wall' as well as interior and invisible buttressing.
Next, we went down to the well of the Dean's Stair. We had seen it from above in the triforium, where this photo was taken, but it is even more amazing viewed from below. These 'geometric stairs', each resting on the one below as well as 6 inches into the wall, have become seriously famous in recent years, appearing both at Hogwarts and in the Paddington film.
We then paused by the huge oval font, dating from 1750, to hear that the Portland stone for the Cathedral was brought by ship and then boat (London Bridge being impassible for large craft) and unloaded at St Paul's wharf, just where the Millennium Bridge is now. So as you walk up that slope to the firefighters' memorial (here, in case you've forgotten) you need to imagine workmen lugging the great stones towards the building site.
When the Victorian era began, the Cathedral was felt to be too plain (Victoria herself said it was insufficiently devotional) so stained glass windows and a very 'high' high altar were put in, but happily the Luftwaffe restored things to their simpler state.
There were no memorials at all in the church until the end of the eighteenth century, but since then, many military men have been memorialised here. We were told the long and complex story of the memorial for the Duke of Wellington, whose gigantic memorial is only outdone by his actual tomb in the crypt. He had been dead for sixty years before his memorial was complete.
Now we were under the dome, and learned the difficulties of building enormous heavy structures on a base of London clay (St Peter's, Rome, has a nice rocky foothold). So the eight huge pillars actually hold up a dome of wood and brick, faced with stone, and plastered on the inside, by a master plasterer called Henry Dogood. There is a fine statue of Lord Nelson here (he has the plum burial position in the crypt, directly under the centre of the dome) and round the corner is a statue of John Donne, who fo course was Dean of the old Cathedral, but whose monument is the only one which survived to be put in the new one, though not till the 1820s.
We sat in the Quire to hear about the long history of singing boys, and to see the wonderful Grinling Gibbons carvings of botanical items on the Bishop's Chair. The Quire was in use for services from 1697 onwards, though it must have been pretty chilly with the nave and dome incomplete. The ceiling mosaics are also a symptom if the Victorian need for embellishment, but the beautiful gates are the work of Tijou, who was employed by Wren
Behind the high altar is the American Memorial Chapel, for the 28,000 Americans who were stationed in Britain and died in the Second World War.
As we headed down to the crypt, we paused at the memorial to Samuel Johnson, rather oddly dressed in nothing but a sheet.
The crypt is the same size as the cathedral, which is very unusual. Beneath the entry to the Quire, Wren had to put in extra arches to bear the weight of Schmidt's organ above (or his 'confounded box of whistles' as Wren described it).
Here we saw Wren's own memorial, in a quiet corner (lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice) near Millais and Turner and various other Royal Academicians. The Chapel of St Faith is now a chapel for the British Empire Order. There are so many members that there has to be a ballot for the service of 24 May (or Empire Day as people of our age sometimes knew it)
And there are many more memorials: Admirals Beattie and Jellicoe close enough together to continue the tetchy relationship they had during the First World War, Sullivan and Parry for music, Alexander Fleming for science. There was a coffin slot in the ceiling through which the dead could be lowered, but Beattie was the last actual burial here, in 1936.
And finally we came to the huge tombs of Wellington and Nelson. Nelson's body is in a sarcophagus originally designed and made at the orders of Cardinal Wolsey, but never used because of his disgrace. Weillington is in a massive granite tomb; the mosaic on the floor around is made up of chips broken by women prisoners in Woking Gaol, which gives a whole new meaning to the term 'stone-breaking' as a stereotype of prison work.
I could go on but enough is enough, so I shall spare you tales of Churchill's funeral, and the difference between a terrorist and an organist, merely advising you that a visit is seriously worth while and worth the not insignificant entry charge.