We visited the British Museum one day last September and and then walked along Tottenham Court Road for awhile. After lunch we rode on the Tube to St Paul’s Station to once again see the mother church of the Diocese of London. It was our second visit to St Paul’s — the first and only time inside — and we encountered both disappointment and a pleasant surprise during this visit.
I knew already from Rick Steves’ guide book that photography was not allowed inside St Paul’s. But that didn’t stop the disappointment when I entered the nave and looked off to the left and gazed at the great Wellington monument, complete with the hero’s horse Copenhagen hugging the high ceiling. A horse in the middle of a great church!
Westminster Abbey also forbids photography, as does the Catholic Brompton Oratory. The lady in charge at St Martins in the Fields told me that I could not take any pictures whenever the choir is in the choir. “Something about copyrights,” she mumbled. But we visited 20 minutes before Evensong and the choir was already rehearsing. So I was not able to take even one shot inside any church in London during our eleven-day stay. It was to become my biggest disappointment of our entire vacation.
But the pleasant surprise mollified us considerably. We just happened to walk into the middle of a grand rehearsal. At 7:30 that night a major musical event called Blitz Requiem was scheduled to be presented and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Bach Choir were rehearsing for that event. There were also four distinguished singers from the opera world taking solo turns with some of the songs. We were unable to climb to the Whispering Gallery during our visit and test out St Paul’s amazing acoustics but I can tell you that the acoustics were just fine on the ground floor! We also decided not to explore the crypt of St Paul’s that day because we were perfectly content to just sit and listen to the glorious music. I did walk around the entire floor while listening to the music and even stepped outside the south transept for a few minutes just to take a few pictures.
We visited St Peter’s in Rome in 2009 and were overwhelmed by all the monuments to popes and all the mosaics and statues everywhere honoring countless saints. There are no popes (of course) or saints in St Paul’s (except the dome paintings on the life of St Paul which Wren hated). Instead we see monuments to all of Britain’s great military heroes. Michelangelo designed St Peter’s in the middle of the Renaissance and Bernini added baroque touches a century later. Wren’s ideas of decor were a lot more somber than those of the Italians. Queen Victoria, complaining that the place was “too dark and dingy,” refused to enter the cathedral during the celebration of her Jubilee in 1887. She would not budge from her carriage and so the service was held on the cathedral’s front steps. Soon after this event glitter mosaics were added to the apse. I don’t think Wren would have liked that.
But we didn’t mind the little glitter as we listened for about an hour and a half to the Francis Warner poem commemorating the 1940-1944 bombing of London. The poem was put to music by David Goode and expressed by the voices of the Bach Choir and the opera singers and by the instruments of the Royal Philharmonic. David Hill conducted the music. There were also some introductory pieces performed in the program, including a poem by Walt Whitman entitled Toward the Unknown Region.
During my walk around the church I came across the American Memorial Chapel behind the cathedral’s high altar. This chapel was dedicated in 1958 to the 28,000 Americans who were stationed in Britain during World War II and lost their lives in the war. The chapel contains the only stained glass window in the entire cathedral.
There is an admission charge to tour the cathedral with discounts (Brits call them concessions) to children and seniors. Each visitor is given an audio-visual device for a self-guided tour that includes the crypt. A guided tour to the Whispering Gallery is also available.
The cathedral is not open for touring on Sundays.