Gothic

St. Paul's Cathedral

St Paul’s Cathedral is easily one of the most well-known and also most recognizable sights in the historic city of London and for almost three hundred years it dominated the city’s skyline as the city’s tallest structure.

With a history dating back more than fourteen centuries, the cathedral has played a significant role in British history and has become an important symbol with regard to the national identity of the English people.

St. Paul’s is not only home to the seat of the Bishop of London and is the mother church of the diocese of London but (similar to Westminster Abbey) often finds itself as the host of some of England’s most important events.

Some of which have in recent years included royal weddings and the funerals of important figures like Sir Winston Churchill and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Even though St. Paul’s time as being the tallest building in the city is clearly over, it is said that the majority of the visitors who visit the popular observation deck of the nearby Shard skyscraper spend most of their time taking photos of the beautiful cathedral which is located just across the Thames.

Today the cathedral serves not only as a fully functional church that holds daily services but also as one of London’s most popular tourist attractions with more than two million people visiting each year.

History

St. Paul’s Cathedral has a history that dates back to AD 604 but don’t let that history fool you, the cathedral that we can see today is no where near that old. Historical records indicate that a church was built somewhere on the site over fourteen hundred years ago, but there is actually little evidence to prove such claims.

The cathedral known as “Old St. Paul’s” was constructed on site by the Normans between 1087 and 1240 and was a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles constructed using both stone and wood.

London however has had a bit of bad luck when it comes to fire and the city has been ravaged on more than a few occasions, the most well-known of which is probably the Great Fire of 1666.

The devastating fire destroyed 13,200 houses, 88 parish churches and forced the displacement of around 70-80,000 of the city’s inhabitants. Most notably the original St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was then one of London’s largest and most important buildings was also destroyed.

While Londoners went about rebuilding their lives, the office of famed British architect Sir Christopher Wren was selected and given the honour of overseeing the design and construction of over fifty churches to replace those that were destroyed, including that of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The name Sir Christopher Wren may not be a household name for a lot of people outside of England, but the man was a legendary genius who was not only England’s most highly acclaimed architects but was also an anatomist, astronomer, geometry and mathematician-physicist.

While its often overlooked, Wren had a tremendous influence on intellectual affairs in 17th and 18th century Britain as President of the Royal Society making tremendous contributions to scientific thought and discovery.

Today he is most well-known for having a hand in the design and construction of some of London’s most well-known buildings with his work on St. Paul’s Cathedral being considered the masterpiece of his architectural genius.

In 1668 the Archbishop of Canterbury, with support from the Bishops of London and Oxford charged Wren with the responsibility of designing a new cathedral to replace the old St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Wren was given the instructions that the new cathedral should be “handsome and noble to all ends of it and to the reputation of the city and the nation” meaning that whatever he came up with had to be so grand in design that nothing else could compare.

Construction on the cathedral started in the summer of 1675 and was opened to the public twenty-two years later in 1697.

The finished version of Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral would be the tallest building in London, the second largest church in Britain and had a dome that was considered the finest in the whole world.

The building, which was financed by a tax on coal cost £1,095,556, which is equivalent to around $200 million US dollars today.

During the Second World War the cathedral was damaged during the German Blitz of London but was saved from outright destruction due to the efforts of civil defence brigades to protect it.

Churchill believed that the destruction of the cathedral would do irreparable damage to the morale of the nation, so he ensured that every effort was made to protect it from harm.

Still, one of the most iconic images of the Blitz depicts the dome of the cathedral shrouded in smoke with the buildings in the foreground engulfed in flames.

The image was thought to describe the resolve of the British people which was “proud”, “glorious” and “indomitable” and helped to push the British and the allies to ultimate victory over the Germans.

Sir Christopher Wren passed away in 1723, a few years after the completion of the cathedral.

It was only fitting that his tomb be constructed in the crypts of his architectural masterpiece. Today people can not only visit the church but pay their respects to one of English history’s greatest figures.

The inscription on his tomb reads: “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” or “Reader, if you seek his memorial, look around you” which is a fitting tribute to the man and his accomplishments.

Design

When Christopher Wren was charged with the design and construction of a new St. Paul’s Cathedral, his office was already busy designing and constructing fifty other parish churches.

Designing a new version of St. Paul’s however was a project unlike any of the others - Wren’s task was to create a cathedral more grand than the original as well as a building that would serve as a landmark.

He also had to satisfy the stringent requirements of the Church of England, rich benefactors and try to stay true to and respect the mediaeval traditions of English church building.

Wren came up with five different designs for the cathedral which were inspired by the design of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and a combination of English medieval architecture with contemporary Renaissance trends - most notably the Baroque style.

The design that was approved combined neoclassical, gothic and baroque elements which symbolized the ideals of the English restoration with the construction techniques of the time.

Wren was given artistic licence to make minor changes during construction which he used to make modifications based on elements of some of the other designs he had submitted.

The finished cathedral actually ended up being considerably different than originally planned.

As for the specifics of the architectural design, I’m admittedly not an expert, so for a more in-depth description of the design of the interior and exterior of the cathedral, I recommend checking out the links below.

St. Paul’s Cathedral (Wiki)

Designing St. Paul’s Cathedral (Google Arts & Culture)

What I will go into a bit of detail about with regards to design is that of the dome - Which is said to be one of the finest in the world.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit the dome’s at both St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London and can easily say that St. Paul’s is the clear winner in terms of beauty.

When you stand under the dome looking up, the beauty of Wren’s design will captivate anyone who sees it. If you then climb to the base of the dome on the roof and gaze at the floor below, you’ll be even more amazed.

Oh, and I suppose the beautiful views of the London cityscape from the top of the dome aren’t too shabby as well!

The dome is composed of three different shells - The outer dome, a concealed brick cone (for structural support) and an inner dome. The main internal space of the cathedral is located under the central dome which is supported from floor-level by pendentives that rise up in the form of eight arches that surround the dome.

The genius of Wren’s design supports the dome from ground level while leaving the area under it completely open with no visible supports. The dome, which is said to weigh over 850 tons was also designed in a way that its weight is supported and lightened through the three shells.

You’re not supposed to take photos in the cathedral, but it would be a shame to go to such a beautiful place and not sneak a few. I took a few from floor level, a few from the first platform and of course more from the outside viewing platform.

Visiting the dome makes the price of admission fee well worth the trip and is probably going to be the highlight of your day if you visit.

Getting There / Visiting

Like Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of London’s most popular tourist attractions.

A visit to St. Paul’s however is a bit more relaxing as guests are able to enjoy the spectacular interior and exterior of the building with a little more freedom.

In addition to checking out the historic building, guests are also able to climb to the different levels of the dome which on the inside gives amazing views of the cathedral’s interior and its architecture while the higher exterior level allows for spectacular panoramic views of the city.

To gain entry to the cathedral you will have to purchase a ticket which you can either buy online or when you arrive.

If you want to save a bit of time and money I recommend purchasing your tickets online so that you don’t end up waiting in a long line. If you decide to purchase your ticket when you arrive the general admission costs £18 for adults (tickets are cheaper for students, children and seniors).

Link: St. Paul’s Cathedral - Tickets

The cathedral is open for sightseeing from Monday to Saturday from 8:30am - 4:30pm and it should be noted that most people spend more than two hours on their visit, so make sure to arrive a bit early in the day.

You should also be aware that before you gain entry to the cathedral that you’ll have to pass through an airport style security check where guards will be checking bags.

If you want to ensure that you pass through quickly, try not to carry too much with you. They won’t let you in with anything larger than a backpack and there aren’t any lockers available to store your things.

It’s also important to note that photography and the usage of tripods within the cathedral is prohibited, so you probably won’t want to bother bringing too much gear with you if you’re a photographer.

Make sure to bring a camera though because the views from the top of the dome are amazing!

 

St. Paul's Churchyard, London EC4M 8AD, United Kingdom

There are a number of public transport options that will get you to the cathedral:

If you are using the London Underground, it is only a two minute walk from St. Paul’s Station but you can also easily walk there in under five minutes rom Mansion House, Blackfriars or Bank stations.

If you are taking the bus you can get to the cathedral via routes 4, 8, 11, 15, 17, 23, 25, 26, 56, 100, 172, 242 and 521.

If you are travelling by train City Thameslink, Cannon Street and Liverpool Street stations are a short walk away.

In retrospect, my visit to England was a learning experience in the legend that is Wren - I visited several of the buildings that he designed as well as his former home and the trip culminated in a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral, his masterpiece and his final resting place.

None of this was actually intended, but my trip was made even better because of it.

I enjoyed visiting Westminster Abbey, but can honestly say that if I were to choose between the two for a second visit, without a second thought I’d be visiting St. Paul’s Cathedral again.

If you are visiting London, this is a destination that you’re not going to want to miss.


Westminster Abbey

For around the last thousand years or so, if you were to become the King or Queen of England, there is only one place where would you go for your coronation, your wedding or ultimately your funeral.

Westminster Abbey is arguably the most important place of worship in Britain and if you’ve had the chance to visit this masterpiece of gothic architecture, you’re sure to realize why. 

The Abbey is ideally located in the Westminster Borough of London, which is also home to the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street, St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace as well as a number of other historic and popular tourist spots. 

The church has a history that dates back to AD 960 when it was originally founded, but what we see today is the result of a reconstruction effort that took place between 1245 and 1517 which makes it about over 700 years old. 

Today the Gothic-style cathedral is not only a fully functioning church and a place that performs important duties for the royal family, but also a major tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

When I write about tourist destinations here in Asia, its often the case that there is very little in terms of English language resources available, so I need to spend a lot of time translating any information that I think is relevant.

For the places I visited on my Euro-Trip however I’ll be able to depart from my usual blogging style as they have already been written about extensively. I feel like it would be pointless for me to sit here and relay all of that information to you when it is so readily available elsewhere.

So what I aim to do with this blog post and the other Europe blog posts to follow is to more or less share some of the photos I took, give some impressions of the tour and also some practical information about visiting. 

To start, I guess I’d like to say visiting Westminster Abbey was a bit of a ‘religious experience’ for myself. Probably not in the way you are thinking though. 

Westminster Abbey is not only the burial place for British royalty, but also for others who were of significance in English history. In total, the Abbey commemorates (and is the burial place for) over 3,300 individuals who played an important role in English and world history. 

Despite knowing the historical and architectural significance of Westminster Abbey, my main motivation for visiting wasn’t to check out the graves of dead Kings and Queens, nor was it for anything to do with Christianity - it was to enjoy some amazing architecture and to visit the grave of Charles Darwin, both of which I came away quite content with.   

It may seem a bit ironic to have an agnostic superhero like Charles Darwin buried in such an important religious building, especially when you consider that his research and discoveries have invalidated quite a few of Christianity’s claims.

Darwin however was an important figure in English history and in death was given the respect that the people of the time thought he deserved.

While I won’t go into a lot of detail about the history or architecture of the Abbey, I think there are a few interesting historic facts about it that can be mentioned - most of which I don’t think are often mentioned in other articles:

  1. What’s in a name? “Westminster Abbey” isn’t actually the official title of the church which is the “Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminter”. Coincidentally it isn’t even an “Abbey”, as it holds a special designation known as a “Royal Peculiar” meaning that it is a church responsible directly to the sovereign. 
  2. As mentioned above, since 1066, the church has been the place to go if you are to be coronated as the King or Queen of England. In that time 39 coronations have taken place at the Abbey with the most recent one in 1953 for Queen Elizabeth II.
  3. Over 3,300 people have been buried or commemorated in the church including seventeen monarchs as well as notable figures like Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Isaac Newton. If you are interested in literature don’t forget to stop by “poets corner” which commemorates many of England’s greatest literary figures.
  4. A point of confusion is whether or not Westminster Abbey is Catholic or not. First I’ll mention that there is also a “Westminster Cathedral” which is Catholic, but it is not the same location as “Westminster Abbey”. The Abbey of course was originally run by Benedictine Monks and under the sphere of Rome’s influence, but that all ended during the “English Reformation”  when King Henry VIII decided he wanted to get a divorce and for better or worse changed the course of world history. Westminster Abbey has been a part of the Anglican Church since the early 16th Century. 
  5. Translation work for the King James Bible (KJV) was undertaken by committees of scholars at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and at Westminster. Westminster in particular was responsible for the books of Genesis - 2 Kings in the Old Testament and the Epistles of St. Paul in the New Testament. While non-Christians will argue it was just a translation of the bible, the translation is considered by others as one of the most important books in English culture. 
  6. If you know me, you know I like old doors - Westminster Abbey is home to what is known as the ‘oldest door in the realm’, an oak door that connects the cloister to the abbey and carbon dating has its origins dated back to approximately 1050AD. Its also really short. 
  7. A Posthumous Execution? England was a bit of a barbaric place back in the day, so when the monarchy was restored after the English Civil War, the body of Oliver Cromwell was dug up from the Abbey and given a ‘ceremonial execution’ with his head being placed on a pike in a public square elsewhere.  
  8. Westminster Abbey is home to the UK version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tombs, which have been erected in many nations around the world as a memorial for a nations war-dead and have become sacred places. The tomb in my native Canada is an especially beautiful version, but here in Westminster, the level of respect given to this tomb is so high that not even a member of the royal family can walk across it. It is only fitting that this tomb is found in Westminster Abbey.
  9. While it’s unfortunate that you can’t take photos inside Westminster Abbey, there are a few places on the grounds where photos are permitted. The Chapter House for example is one of those places where those with cameras must visit. The Chapter House, which was constructed in 1250 for the daily meetings of the monks who resided at the Abbey later became a meeting place for the King’s Council and the Commons, the predecessor of today’s Parliament. The architecture of the octagonal chamber is spectacular and makes for for pretty nice photos!

Now lets get into some of my thoughts and tips for others for visiting:

It’s a Busy Place

The first thing you have to know about visiting the Abbey, whether its off-season or not is that an estimated two million tourists visit each year. You are going to be visiting the cathedral with hundreds, if not thousands of others who may be travelling individually or travelling in large tour groups. With that amount of people it can be a bit difficult to really enjoy all the fine details of the historic church before you get pushed on to the next stop. 

Security Checks

Something you’ll have to get used to while travelling through Europe are the constant Security Checks that you’ll have to go through before gaining access to historic sites. The Security Checks are a lot like what you have to go through at the airport, so my advice for getting through as quickly as possible is to not bring very much with you and to refrain from wearing boots or belts with metal inside as you’ll have to take them off. If you’re a photographer like myself, do not bother bringing a tripod or monopod (of any size) as they will likely ask you to check it in which can be time consuming. 

No Photos

One rule that irritates me when visiting tourist sites, especially those where you pay a hefty admission fee is the “No Photos” rule. This is strictly enforced at Westminster Abbey by the security personnel who walk around as well as the clergy who are also on the floor performing various tasks. It’s obvious that they can’t stop everyone from taking photos or the occasional selfie, so when you visit you’ll see guests sneaking some photos which may give you a bit of courage to take one of your own - If you get caught however, like I did, you’ll get a stern “NO PHOTOS” warning which can be a bit embarrassing.   

Tickets

If you are planning your trip in advance, the best thing you can do when visiting Westminster Abbey, and any major tourist destination in Europe, is pre-purchase your tickets. If you visit the Abbey’s website, you can buy your tickets online and then either print out the web-ticket that they send you or save the PDF file on your smart phone. This will ultimately save visitors quite a bit of time, especially during the summer months when the queues to get in can be quite long. If skipping the ticket line is not enough of an incentive to buy your tickets online, you can also save a bit of money as the online tickets are £20 while on site purchases are £22 for adults. 

Check the Westminster Abbey website for Children, Family and Group rates. 

Audio-Guides

Its not really neccessary to join a tour group or have a guide while visiting the Abbey, but it is important that you pick up an audio-guide at the entrance and stop to listen to all of the important information that is presented. Personally I tend to frown upon tourists who hold audio-guides and stand in the same place for long periods of time, but when it comes to Westminster Abbey, there is just too much information and way too much going on in terms of detail that you may ultimately regret not listening intently. If you don’t get an audio-guide you will definitely miss out on quite a few important historic details. You may also want to consider downloading the free Westminster Abbey Audio Tour App (iOS / Android) before leaving home so that you can easily use your smartphone. 

Audio-Guides are included in the price of admission and are available in over a dozen languages. 

Plan For a Full Day 

Depending on how much time you have in London, you’ll probably want to full day of exciting activities. The important thing to remember though is that a visit to Westminster Abbey is going to take the better part of an afternoon. There is just way too much to see and learn, so don’t think that you’re going to be able to walk in and walk out in an hour, that would be a complete waste. 

We started our day with a visit to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard ceremony in the morning, then stopped for some breakfast (Tea and Crumpets!!) before arriving at Westminster Abbey around 1:00pm. We probably spent the better part of three hours inside the church before moving on to check out the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (which are a short two-three minute walk away from the exit.) We then walked from there to Trafalgar Square, where I wanted to get some photos of the beautiful Canadian embassy, then had some dinner and finally over to the river to check out the night view of the London Eye. 

When in London there are few tourist spots as significant as Westminster Abbey - It’s one of those must-visit locations and like close-by Buckingham Palace there are always throngs of tourists visiting. Still, a visit to Westminster Abbey is a rewarded experience for any traveller which offers an interesting look into the last several hundred years of British history.

The purpose of this blog post was to just share a few of the photos I took at Westminster Abbey - There is already more than enough information online about this historic location. If you are reading however, I think some of the tips listed above should help out if you plan on visiting!