THERE can’t be many London landmarks that have provided a backdrop for so much of the city’s history as the distinctive dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Gazing out over the Thames from its lofty perch on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the City of London, it was completed in the wake of the Great Fire of London, designed in the English baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren and completed within his lifetime.
As a teenager, I remember visiting the famous Whispering Gallery more than half a century ago, when a favourite uncle was acting as tour guide to my French exchange counterpart, Pascal. Last week, I slipped back inside the building for the first time for a brief lunchtime eucharist staged beneath that awe-inspiring dome.
I’ve pounded the surrounding streets on countless occasions, leading journalism students down to the nearby Old Bailey or the crypt at St Bride’s (below). But I’ve never returned to see that glorious interior, perhaps deterred by the crowds of tourists scattered like pigeons over the steps of St Paul’s in the summer months.
It’s remarkable that the cathedral was completed in Wren’s lifetime – and 19th-century legend has it that he would often take the trip to London to pay unofficial visits to check on the progress of his “greatest work”.
On a grey November day, the building is still full of visitors from all over the world, but it’s relatively peaceful under the dome, where semi-circles of chairs are laid out for the brief service, which on my visit recalls the memory of Edmund the Martyr, king of East Anglia back in the 9th century.
That throwback across the centuries seems all the more appropriate here, where people have been worshipping for more than a millennium: the original church on this site dates from AD 604.
Hundreds of years of history are recalled on the St Paul’s website, from the funerals of Admiral Nelson and Winston Churchill to the use of the Cathedral’s steps in the set for the iconic Feed the Birds song from the 1964 Disney film version of Mary Poppins.
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares
Maybe down in the crypt Wren is smiling too. He was laid to rest in 1723 and the inscription in Latin on his memorial reads: “Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.”