Laura’s London: A Tour Behind the Scenes of St Paul’s Cathedral

St Paul's Cathedral

A trip to St Paul’s Cathedral is on most visitor’s “must see” list and as it is only five tube stops away from the Olympic Park in Stratford it is likely to be popular this summer too. I was lucky enough to get a private tour and was taken to areas that are not open to the public every day. I also tried the Multimedia tour, which is included in the entrance fee for every visitor. But first, let’s get past those age old questions:

Why is there an entrance fee?

St Paul’s Cathedral’s main purpose is for the worship of God and they never charge people who want to come in to pray. St Dunstan’s Chapel is always available to visit with no charge and all services are free to attend (Evensong is the service to note if you’d like to hear the choirboys at their best). Be aware, there is no sightseeing here on Sundays.This is a heritage building with high maintenance costs (see conservation cleaning below) that receives little funding from the Crown, Church or the State and therefore relies on the income generated by tourism. As you could easily spend a full day here I do feel the admission rate is perfectly reasonable.

Why can’t I take photos inside the cathedral?

I’ll refer back to the cathedral’s main purpose: not as a tourist attraction but as a place of worship. They did allow photography in the past but the combination of camera flashes and groups lining up to pose for photographs under the dome led to the conclusion that allowing photography was too distracting. Yes, they sell some excellent postcards and books in the gift shop but no-one is making you buy them.

Conservation Cleaning

Right now is one of the few times in recent history that the cathedral has not had scaffolding up outside. The exterior was cleaned with air blasts and took eight years to complete and the interior cleaning lasted from 2001 to 2005 with just ten Conservators doing all the work. Once you come inside and see the height of the building you’ll be impressed by this incredible feat. Next to the Great West Doors they have left a panel uncleaned so we can remember how dirty the stonework had got. They used a type of ‘facepack’ for stonework and then toothbrushes for the fine detail.

Doors Still Open

The doors have often been kept open to the cathedral for added light and at one time horses and dogs were even allowed inside. In 1648-49 horses were stabled inside during the Civil War. It had become such a mess that the king had already asked Sir Christopher Wren to submit plans for a new St Paul’s Cathedral even before the Great Fire of London in 1666. Today, there is a viewing area on the South Transept where you can go outside and see the view across the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern. You are welcome to take photos when outside.

Cathedral Floor

The building truly has a ‘wow factor’ and there’s plenty to see. Some of my highlights included:

  • The Wellington Monument in the North Nave which is topped with a bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington on his horse, Copenhagen. This enormous monument actually took longer to build that the whole cathedral.
  • Ceiling Mosaics: St Paul’s was the first cathedral to be built after the Reformation in 1534 and there are Sir James Thornhill paintings in the dome as at the time mosaics were considered too ‘Popish’/catholic. Mosaics were added to the ceiling at Queen Victoria’s request as she found the building too dark and there are 6 million pieces of coloured glass.
  • The Tijou Gates at the High Altar were designed by Jean Tijou, the greatest ironworker of the time, who also created the screens and grilles at Hampton Court Palace.
  • Along the South Quire Aisle there is a marble effigy of John Donne which is the only statue that survived the Great Fire of London. He was a Dean of the cathedral and one of Britain’s finest metaphysical poets, who died in 1631.

The Crypt

The crypt is the largest in Europe and Nelson’s Tomb is directly under the dome but the casket wasn’t made especially for him. It was made for Cardinal Thomas Wolseley who fell from favour when he couldn’t get Henry VIII a divorce from The Pope so the casket was kept in storage for over 200 years. Nelson is buried in the base of the monument. Following his funeral at St Paul’s on 9 January 1806, Nelson was the first person of national importance to be buried here, hence the central location. Near the Wellington and Nelson Tombs there is an impressive mosaic floor that was laid by women prisoners from Woking Jail (near London) during their rehabilitation. While Westminster Abbey has Poet’s Corner, St Paul’s Cathedral has Artist’s Corner with Millais, Turner, Joshua Reynolds and William Holman Hunt (see his ‘The Light of the World’ on the Cathedral Floor), many with a strong connection to the Royal Academy of Arts. Oculus is a 270 degree film experience which makes you feel as if you are exploring the cathedral. An excellent option for those who can’t make the climb to the higher galleries.

Where’s Sir Christopher Wren’s Memorial?

The simple black slab next to Artist’s Corner is for Sir Christopher Wren and what seems unimpressive corresponds to his modesty. His son wanted to ensure he was remembered (like the City of London could forget!) and there is a Latin inscription on the wall which translates as: Underneath lies buried Christopher Wren, the builder of this church and city, who lived beyond the age of 90 years, not for himself but for public good. Reader, if you seek his monument look about you.

American Connections

St Paul’s Cathedral is the focus for many American commemorations including the annual Thanksgiving service and the 9/11 remembrance. The Jesus Chapel, commonly known as the American Chapel, is behind the High Altar and was built after the war as this section of the building did get bombed. The roll of honour contains the names of more than 28,000 Americans who gave their lives while on their way to, or stationed in, the United Kingdom during World War II. One page is turned every day. The limewood panelling is of American flora and fauna but look to the far right and there’s a rocket as a tribute to America’s achievements in space. This chapel has the only stained glass in the cathedral and the three windows represent Service, Sacrifice and Resurrection. Downstairs in the Crypt there is a bust of George Washington near the Nelson’s Tomb and a poignant memorial for Pilot Officer William Meade Lindsley Fiske III, an American who pretended to be Canadian so he could serve in the RAF (Royal Air Force) and became the first American to die in the Battle of Britain on 18 August 1940. Fiske was also an Olympic champion as he had led the USA bobsleigh team to victory at the St Moritz Winter Olympics in 1928 becoming the youngest man to win a Winter Olympic gold. During the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, Fiske was selected to carry the US flag during the opening ceremony and his team went on to win gold again. The plaque reads: “An American citizen who died that England might live”.

The Geometric Staircase

Triforium Level

This is the level that is not open to all visitors but I have since discovered you can book a tour. You’ll see stones from the old cathedral with simple labels: Norman, Gothic, etc. (this is the fifth cathedral on this site) and the Geometric Staircase that is the Hogwart’s staircase in the Harry Potter movies. (Note, no-one is allowed to walk up or down the stairs as the railings are not suitable for ‘health and safety regulations.) I stood on the West Balcony and had the view that the TV cameras use for important services and the biggest treat was entering the Trophy Room which houses Wren’s Great Model, built by Sir Christopher Wren for Charles II. It’s large enough for the king to go inside and sit under the huge dome and contemplate whether this was the cathedral he wanted built. Thankfully he liked it and royal approval was given in 1675.

Wren’s Great Model in the Trophy Room, a locked room that is not accessible to most visitors.

Climb those stairs

I did climb the steps to the Whispering Gallery (257 steps), then to the Stone Gallery (another 119 steps), and to the Golden Gallery at the top (another 152 steps). The staircases get narrow at points towards the end but the views of the City, and across the River Thames are fantastic.

Photo Gallery

Key Info about St Paul’s Cathedral

Website: Time: Mondayto Sunday: 08:30-16:00 (worship only on Sundays) Phone: +44 (0)20 7246 8348 Costs: Adult £15 / Concession £14 /child £ (aged 6-17 years) Family ticket: 2 adult & 2 children (children 6-18 years) £36 Getting there: St Paul’s is the nearest tube station (Central Line). Mansion House, Cannon Street and Blackfriars stations on the District and Circle Lines are also within walking distance.

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  1. avatarMaureen says

    Thank you, Laura. This is so informative. I took the long tour with a charming older lady . I was the only oldie among a group of very young folks who seemed a bit anxious to move the tour along! a bit faster I did not get to climb all the way up which I do hope to do some day. Thank you for the inside info on the special tour. I will keep that in mind for next time.

  2. avatar says

    Thanks Maureen. I never knew about the Triforium tour until last when when my personal Guide (yes, I had a tour all to myself!) said he could take me to locked away areas and I was thrilled! The Triforium tour is not that much more than the standard entrance fee so is definitely worth considering is you can get a small group together.

  3. avatarLancelot Taylor says

    Dear Laura,

    I have just stumbled upon your brightly written account of visiting St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and enjoyed it very much indeed. Photographs inside the dome – or rather between the inner and the brink domes – are something of a rarity, so perhaps you will take one or two from inside there the next time you explore this majestic cathedral. I hope you don’t mind if I point out one little error in your otherwise accurate account. The ‘Great Model’ design, whose photograph you include, was not, in fact, the one that was chosen, much to Sir Christopher Wren’s disappointment. That was the the subsequent – ‘Warrant’ design, which was topped by a (at first) pagoda-looking spire.
    You will, of course, know the American cathedral which was largely inspired by St Paul’s.
    Now to enjoy your photographs once more!

    Warm regards,

  4. avatar says

    Thanks Lancelot. You are absolutely right about Christopher Wren’s Great Model not being the chosen design. Really appreciate your update. And I’ll remember to get more photos next time I’m there. Thanks again.