For this Saturday, November the 11th, Roxane unearthed a wicked plan: a free visit to St Paul’s on the occasion of the Lord Mayor’s show.We left home at 11am, and parked near Brook Green in order to avoid the roads closed to traffic while at the same time being closer enough to move on with the underground. On the way, we stumbled on a small farmer’s market. To a French eye, the markets in London are quite different, usually a gathering of stalls offering ready-made food, they are less expansive. You can often find fruits and vegetables, bread and cheese but usually at high premiums. Never mind, as they say, no pain, no gain, we get tempted to buy a huge boule of sourdough bread (almost 2kg!) for £8 and a “cholla” for £3.50; it’s apparently a Jewish braided brioche/bread (we learned our new word for today), that we’ll slowly tuck away over the day. Unfortunately, it must have been sitting in the open air for quite some time as it’s quite dry.
We come out of the tube at St. Paul’s station while the crowd is dissipating. The Lord Mayor’s parade is a yearly celebration unique in London. Not to be confused with the Mayor of London who oversees Greater London, the Lord Mayor’s appointment is limited to the City. His role is more akin to a delegate for the lobbies and banks of the City…
One of the world’s oldest continuously elected civic offices, the Lord Mayor‘s main role nowadays is to represent, support and promote the businesses and residents in the City of London. Today, these businesses are mostly in the financial sector and the Lord Mayor is regarded as the champion of the entire UK-based financial sector regardless of ownership or location throughout the country. He delivered 800 speeches and spent 100 days abroad in 22 countries in the year 2012 alone. The Lord Mayor, is also ex-officio Rector of London’s City, University of London and also Admiral of the Port of London. The Lord Mayor hosts various banquets, including one where the Prime Minister delivers the keynote address, one where the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivers a speech, and another where the Foreign Secretary addresses an audience of international dignitaries.
We didn’t really fancy being drowned in the crowd, and we’re not huge fans of parades either, so we kind of avoided the event. If you want to have an idea of what we could have seen, feel free to visit the London Mayor’s Show official site.
For the occasion of the Lord Mayor’s Show and the ceremony that takes place in St Paul’s Cathedral, access is free for the day instead of the usual £18pp. If you go for the free visit of this particular day, bear in mind that you won’t have access to the audio guide nor to the guided visit. You will however have access to the information panel in the entry hall and its peculiar approach to the French language. After all, why bother paying for a translator for one of the most symbolic and touristic monuments of the city? £18 per head probably can’t even cover the cleaning fees, let alone a spell check. This probably also explains why some of the cathedral’s floor grilles simply overlook the tables of the restaurant in the basement: any dirt from your soles will go straight through, hopefully skipping the plates underneath! By the way the Café-Restaurant has its own entry on the side of the building, but it’s very easy to confuse it with the venue’s entry given the long queue in front of it (most likely half the people are just in front of the wrong gate and will have to start queuing again a few meters further).
We did a comprehensive tour of the building, going up into the dome and down in the crypt. The “Whispering Gallery” in the dome, reached through 257 steps from the ground level, provides a view of the transepts and a different perspective of the choir and nave. The gallery gets its name from a charming quirk in its construction, which makes a whisper against its walls audible on the opposite side. That’s difficult to test on such a busy day so we concentrate on the surrounding instead. Taking photos and videos is not permitted, though everyone pushes his luck, in more or less cautious ways. Some really tempt faith: a guy with a Smartphone and an SLR manages to take 4 selfies and some photos using his flash from either side of the gallery before being reprimanded by a warden… Others barely have time to discreetly take their phone out while faking to be texting before being told off… God seems unfair! What about us? We’re too lamblike to defy the ban, moreover all the pictures came out blurred…
Luck is on our side so we get to attend a full demonstration of the Organ, complete with a performance of Bach’s Toccata, and kids invited to join the organist for a go. It does sound terrific and easily covers the noise of all the visitors. One more thing we learned today, this monumental instrument has 7200 pipes! Good luck tuning it.
The Cathedral is arguably more impressive on the outside than on the inside. The mosaics on the Quire Aisles and Altar’s ceilings are magnificent, probably the best I’ve ever seen, while the scarcity of stained glass and the size of the windows provided a decent amount of light despite the typically English weather.
As for the crypt, it is effectively a museum, complete with tombs, church models, memorials and loads of historical information; although it feels heteroclite it is nevertheless very instructive.
We learn for example that the cathedral as we see it today, designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren, had its foundation stone laid in 1675, and was completed 35 years later, in 1710. In fact, there were no less than 4 cathedrals predating the current one! And this last version is even more symbolic considering that it managed to survive the WW2 German bombings, despite the neighbouring area being razed to the ground.
History in reverse chronology:
The previous edifice, called “Old St Paul’s,” was at its heyday the biggest church in Europe, then only dominated by the erection of St Peter’s in Rome. It was already the 4th version of the Cathedral. It was built under the patronage of the son of William the Conqueror: a jewel of Norman architecture, its spire reaching 489 feet high, it was surrounded by walls. A fire delayed the works during its construction. It was consecrated in 1240 but additional work in 1258 saw the choir changing to Gothic style, while the rest of the building remained Romanesque. In 1561 lighting struck the spire igniting a fire that destroyed the steeple and roofs; the spire was never replaced. The building was completely destroyed during the Great Fire of London.
The 3rd version of the Cathedral was built in 962 after the previous one was destroyed by Viking invasions. It will be destroyed by fire in 1087. At that stage I kind of get the English psychosis with regards to fire, though I didn’t spot any “Press to test. Monthly is best.” signs inside the Cathedral.
The second Church was built in stone to replace the first one that was destroyed by, I’m sure you guessed it, another fire.
The first Church, a wood structure, was probably incorporated to the Roman Gate, and consecrated by St Augustine in 604. Though in all fairness the disparity of information on this first version makes its history look more like guesswork than actual science.
On our way out, we’re struck by the deafening noise of the bells that don’t stop ringing. In typical tourist fashion, we tour the outside to take a few photos of the splendid architecture. We’re not alone, and funnily enough it looks like there’s only French people around. Two teenage girls are filming themselves doing a choreography with the Cathedral in the background. Is this some new Facebook challenge, a cheap video clip, or some touristic souvenir in the style of Amélie Poulain’s pictures of the garden gnome in front of all the touristic emblems? We hear them speak French too, gee!We continue our stroll by crossing the famous “Millennium Bridge”, a 1066ft long pedestrian steel bridge, inaugurated in the year 2000, and linking two London landmarks either side of the Thames: St Paul’s Cathedral in the North and the famous Tate Modern on the South Bank. The temptation of the caramel coated peanuts proves too strong and we end up surrendering to our craving. I give £2 to the merchant, Roxane picks the cup that is most full, and wham! Half of it lands on the deck…
It’s late afternoon by now, so we’ve also missed the guided visit (related to the Lord Mayor Show) that started at 3pm at 1 Poultry street. We pass in front of No 1 Poultry just for the sake of it and keep on walking in the deserted streets of the City that are pedestrianised for the day. We end up in Leadenhall Market, the halls of which were made famous by featuring in many movies including a Harry Potter. It’s one of the oldest markets in London, dating from 1321. The Great Fire of London served as an excuse to make it a covered market divided in distinct sections. For centuries, it was renowned for the abundance and quality of its meat. In 1881, aiming to make it a touristic attraction (that’s accomplished!), its stone structure is replaced with wrought iron and glass as we can still admire it today. Architectural interest aside, the market is pretty dead during the weekend. We still spotted a few shopkeepers doing overtimes prematurely decorating for Christmas and the odd tourists taking photos. Oh yeah, and a hipster posing for what looked like a professional photo shooting. This is definitely a very pretty background for taking pictures.