We rushed early to St. Paul's in London one morning so we could explore the cathedral and climb the dome before the large crowds hit. Even so, I had no patience with the early bird tourists giggling with glee at the whispering gallery or shrieking in panic at the tight spiral staircase to the top of the dome, so I wrote poem stanzas on the climb to distract myself from any irritation. Enjoy!

Come, tired pilgrims,
Come to the top of the wall.
Climb to the whispering gallery,
Climb through the dome, do not fall.
We Icaruses above the Eucharist
Who climb to the Heavens above,
We who pant through passages of stone,
Wave down to the pews and quire stalls.

Come, whispering pilgrims,
Come to the cupola crown.
Traverse the narrow stairs and iron railings,
To where the sky peers curiously down.
Stand among saints, among sinners,
Stand at the echoing wall.
Stand where the pilgrims are hither,
Stand with the white marble pall.

Come, aching pilgrims,
Come to the open air sky.
Come to the city's best views,
See where the glass and steel rise.
Reach up for the crisp stratosphere,
Look out over all the world's globe.
Shout down to the bustling streetscape,
Shout up to the heavens full-throat.

Come, eager pilgrims,
Come to the inners of the domes.
Come to the spaces in between where we spiral
Where bells boom against brick and against stone.
Come to the middle where we spin in our heads
In the places we seek to escape.
Come to the limbo of the cathedral sanctum,
Come to the middle and roam.

Come, gasping pilgrims,
Come to the window surprise.
Come to the looking glass hole.
Spy on the patrons below,
And then gasp at the heights still to go.
Come more, all you pilgrims,
Balk not at the steps left to climb
but ascend to the zenith of the bowl.

Look out over the city at last!
Look over the great urban sprawl.
Look to the river and the hills and the sun,
Reflect on the richness and wealth of it all.
Think on the individuals who build and who fall,
And step up, all you pilgrims now here,
Exult in your fear and your awe,
And descend once again down the hall.

The dome of St. Paul's is 365 feet tall including the turret. It's 528 steps up to the Golden Gallery, the highest of three galleries, including the whispering gallery where whispered words can be easily heard on the other side of the dome. Be ready for tight turns and close quarters and keep in mind it's a one-way path once you've started climbing. You can bail at any of the galleries and go back down, but once you've started up the stairs you're committed to at least the next gallery.

While you huff and puff your way up the dome, you can contemplate these facts:

  • The word "cathedral" comes from the Latin word "cathedra" meaning "chair." It refers to the bishop's chair, so you have to have the bishop's cathedra in order to have a cathedral. Hence, St. Paul's cathedral is the cathedral for the diocese of London.
  • St. Paul's is Roman Baroque in style and had replaced an older medieval church that had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. With the Reformation and the break from Rome it was quite a shock for architect Christopher Wren to choose the Roman Baroque style instead of the Gothic style more frequently seen in London. 
  • During the WWII "Blitz" a small army of volunteers worked around the clock to protect the cathedral from incendiary bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe. The audio tour had some interesting facts on these efforts, which I promptly forgot to write down.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. preached at St. Paul's, and after MLK's death his widow Coretta was the first woman to preach at St. Paul's.
  • Grinling Gibbons was a famous wood carver who did all the wood interiors of St. Paul's, including the incredibly ornate quire stalls (again, remember the context: the Reformation was all about eliminating the extravagance of Papal Catholicism, so much of the colorful interior decor was installed well after the cathedral was built. However, it was apparently acceptable to deck out the quire with some fancy woodwork). I was quite shocked to find just how much the limewood had darkened over the centuries. It was almost ebony in color, except for the few bright patches of restored pieces that looked like a sort of white maple color. Now the dark wood looks a bit gloomy, but you can imagine what it would have looked like new with its lighter, brighter, and golden sheen.
  • The quire mosaic has stones set at different angles to give it a shimmering and glittering illusion. No, not all the glimmers is gold, it's just a trick on your eyes.

Oh, and remember that list of names you came up with of famous British dead for who might be buried in Westminster Abbey? Yeah, the rest of that list is interred in St. Paul's crypt. (Okay, not exactly, but that crypt is full of some famous names like William Blake - "To see the world in a grain of sand/and heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/and Eternity in an Hour." and Robert Hooke, Alexander Fleming, Florence Nightingale, and Van Dyck (!! did I mention I saw a lot of Van Dyck in England?!) to name a few.

Do it:

  • Get to St. Paul's early to avoid the crowds and get some decent views of the city before it rains or gets hot.
  • The crypt leads to the exit, so do that last.
  • The audio tour tries to get you to first tour the nave, but beat the crowds and enjoy some golden early morning sunlight by climbing the dome first, then touring the nave, and finally exploring the crypt.
  • When you're done, cross the Thames via the Millennial Bridge and check out Shakespeare's Globe or the Tate Modern.

I'm a fan of seeing churches and cathedrals when I travel; what about you? Do certain architectural elements beckon you when you're touring a city? Let me know in the comments!

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