Louis la Vache va en Angleterre
pour visiter la cathédrale-de-Saint-Paul à Londres
Doctor Dentons, a daily reader of The Frog Blog, asked Louis how he could do a series on cathédrales and not include churches by Christopher Wren. That was all the excuse Louis needed to head to Gare-du-Nord in Paris and take the Eurostar TGV, Train Gran Vitesse, à Londres and visit Wren's masterpiece, Saint Paul's cathedral.
The TGVs are a nice way to travel. Even in economy class, the seats on the TGVs are wide and comfortable. There is plenty of legroom, and the packed-like-a cattle-car conditions of economy class on the airlines is non-existent. French taxpayers (ahem) subsidize the SNCF, the operator of the train lines, thus the fares are artificially low. A ticket on the Eurostar to London is competitive in price with the airlines. Once they are outside the cities, the TGVs travel at 300 kilometres per hour - that's 180 m.p.h. to you, Yank. At that speed, the trip to Londres on the TGV doesn't take so much time that the trade off in comfort vs. speed vis-à-vis the airlines is negated. Besides, the Eurostar takes you from city center to city center, Gare-du-Nord in Paris to Waterloo Station in Londres, thus eliminating travelling 55 kilometres from Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport and an equal distance from Heathrow into London.
After a comfortable ride from Gare-du-Nord to Waterloo Station, Louis boards a tour bus in London and soon finds himself at Saint Paul's. While the bus is transporting Louis to the cathedral, he will give you a little background information on Christopher Wren and how Saint Paul's came to be Wren's masterpiece.
In 1666, most of London was destroyed in a fire that began when a candle tipped over in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane. The fire burned for five days. Amazingly, only twenty people were killed. The tour bus passes a Wren-designed monument built to the fire. A golden flame is at the top of the column, which is 202 feet high. The height of 202 feet was chosen for the column by Wren, because the column is 202 steps from the site of the baker’s shop where the fire began.
Christopher Wren was a multi-talented genius. He was a medical doctor, a mathematician, and an astronomer as well as an architect. Even Sir Issac Newton, discoverer of the law of gravity, was in awe of Wren.
Wren rebuilt much of London after the fire, including 49 of the churches that had been burned. Among Wren’s designs is St. Bryde’s, whose tower is the inspriation for tiered wedding cakes. How appropriate that the church is St. Bryde’s - the name works phonetically, if not in its spelling. Another Wren church is St. Clement’s, the sound of whose bells inspired the rhyme made famous in George Orwell’s book 1984:
“Oranges and Lemons ring the bells of St. Clement’s”
Upon entering, Louis immediately noticed that there is very little stained glass. His immediate assumption was that the stained glass windows had been destoyed in the German bombing blitz of World War II. He was wrong. Wren deliberately chose clear windows for his design because he wanted the structure to be full of light. It was for the same reason he specified that the building be built of a light-colored Portland stone. Wren's appreciation for light mirrors that of Abbot Suger of la basilique-de-Saint-Denis across la Manche en France.
The apse is covered by a huge dome, 365 feet high, a height chosen by Wren to remind us of the number of days of the year. One can climb the steps to the dome - all 530 of them. There are two galleries in the dome. One is famously known as The Whispering Gallery. A whisper spoken on one side can be heard perfectly across the dome, thirty two feet away. The second gallery, further up, The Stone Gallery, is decorated with statues.
After World War II, a chapel to the Americans who fought against Hitler was built behind the high altar. The high altar itself was not built until 1958, but is based on a drawing left by Wren. Wren’s design wasn’t built at the time the cathedral was built because the clergy then thought it too ornate, so a simple wooden altar served until the current altar was finally built. The cathedral itself took thirty five years to build. The American chapel, besides being built behind the high altar, is built in a space that was badly damaged by a German bomb during the war. However, other than shrapnel damage to the exterior, this was the only damage done to St. Paul’s during the war, a wonder in itself as badly as London was bombed and as large a target as Saint Paul's would have been. One of the most famous photographs of the war is the magnificent dome of St. Paul’s rising proudly and unbowed above the smoke, fire and destruction of a German bombing raid.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a working church. A priest mounts the elevated pulpit and reminds the visitors that this is a house of worship and leads us in The Lord’s Prayer after which Louis goes to the crypt where Nelson's tomb is located. The crypt is very substantial, holding over 200 memorials as well as the Order of the British Empire Chapel. Christopher Wren was the first person to be interred in the crypt (in 1723). Carved into his crypt are the words in Latin,
Many other famous English are buried or memorialized here. Perhaps the most famous is Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar. Other notables buried here include Charles Darwin and the politician and writer Thomas Macauley.
Back on the main floor, the Choir extends to the east of the Dome and holds the stalls for the clergy and the choir as well as the cathedral's organ. The organ was commissioned in 1694 and the current instrument is the third largest in Britain with 7,189 pipes and 138 stops. It is enclosed in an impressive case built by Grinling Gibbons. To the north and south of the dome are the transepts of the North Choir and the South Choir.
Within the cathedral are plaques, carvings, monuments and statues dedicated to a wide range of people. The bulk are related to the British military, including several lists of servicemen who died in action, the most recent being the Gulf War. There are special monuments to Admiral Nelson and to the Duke of Wellington in the south transept and north aisle, respectively. Also remembered are poets, painters, clergy and residents of the local parish. There are also lists of the Bishops and cathedral Deans for the last thousand years. The cathedral has been the site for many famous funerals, including those of Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and that of Winston Churchill in 1965. The British Royal Family hold most of their important marriages, funerals and other religious and celebratory functions at Westminster Abbey, but St Paul's was used for the marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer.
Wren designed Saint Paul's in a neo-classical style, quite a contrast to the gothic style of some 400 - 500 years earlier of les cathédrales en France you have been visiting with Louis.
After spending several hours in this awe-inspiring church, Louis realises that it is time to catch the bus back to Waterloo Station and the Eurostar encore à France. But Louis wants you to see all he saw, so he leaves you with this address where you can take 360º tours of Saint Paul's.
St. Paul's: The Story of the Cathedral