Last night we had dinner with Tim’s niece Georgia (who’s an occupational therapist based here in London until she ‘stops having fun’) and this morning we had breakfast with my niece Cressida, her husband Marc and their two dear little girls. They live here in London too now, and it was lovely to meet my grand-nieces for the first time!
After that, we set off for St Paul’s Cathedral where, as part of the admission fee, we chanced upon one of the best tour guides we’ve come across. His name was John and he took us through all sorts of interesting parts of the cathedral that tourists can’t usually access. We went, for example, into the Chapel of St Michael and St George and sat down among the pews, which are decorated with small individual plaques commemorating various military heroes. The plaques are beautifully crafted in enamel, with coats of arms in vivid colours, and quite large, especially for chaps with many letters after their names. We knew only one of them: Baden-Powell, who started the boy scout movement and after whom my grandfather Baden Powell Hill was named in admiration of the hero of Mafeking. On the wooden carvings on the chapel walls we noted that St George was ready for battle but appeared to have lost a dragon to joust with – while St Michael had seven (representing the Seven Deadly Sins). John (who had a rather droll sense of humour) said that he thought St George’s dragon was probably lurking among them.
From there we went downstairs to admire Christopher Wren’s amazing staircase which has steps which seem to float in space. Alas photography is not allowed because St Paul’s is a functioning place of worship, but you can see what it looks like from this link - which also shows a contemporary art installation called Flare II, by artist Antony Gormley. This is not the only example of somewhat incongruous modern intrusions: there is also an exhibition of modern paintings down in the crypt which just looked silly there.
From the choir, one can look up and admire the mosaics properly. Apparently when Wren was commissioned to design the cathedral his brief was to avoid any of that un-Protestant florid popery beloved of those European Catholics, but it wasn’t long before there was consensus that British power and prestige would be well served by some extravagant mosaics and carvings and whatnot with which to impress those same Europeans. So now there are magnificent golden mosaics of angels and so forth, and some of the carvings in the choir stalls are enchanting. Above the altar the mosaics are even more impressive and I was pleased to be able to buy a souvenir book with close-up photos of these mosaics to browse through when we get home.
Amongst the many plaques within the building, one of the first beside the entrance is a reminder of the bravery of the men who defended the cathedral against German bombing during WW2. Night after night they climbed up onto the dome to protect it from the incendiary bombs which would otherwise have started fires in the roof. They were not able to protect the cathedral from explosive bombs, one of which destroyed the altar entirely, and whereas repairs to other bomb damage in the cathedral are faithful reproductions, it was decided to replace the altar with Wren’s original design which was rejected at the time of building as being too fancy.
The highlight for me was seeing the monuments and resting places of Britain’s best and bravest. John Donne is there, looking remarkably pious for one who wrote such raunchy poetry, but judging by the respectful looks of my fellow-tourists when John talked about Donne’s religious poetry and ecclesiastical career, I was the only one who knew that. Donne’s statue is the only one to have survived the Great Fire of London which destroyed the original St Paul’s.
Wellington has a very impressive monument complete with a statue of the great man on his horse – apparently there was some to-do about the appropriateness of having a horse in a house of worship and even when it was agreed that it was okay, there was another fuss about which direction the horse should face because it wasn’t respectable to have its rear-end facing the altar. Then as now, some people don’t have enough to worry about and so they create a fuss about nothing…
In Artists’ Corner there are stone burial plaques over the bones of Joshua Reynolds, William Turner, William Blake, Van Dyk and British-born Randolph Caldecott after whom the American award for children’s book illustration is named. In the Medical Corner there is Sir Henry Wellcome and Alexander Fleming, credited with the discovery of penicillin – though as Australians all know, it was Howard Florey who developed a method of manufacturing sufficient quantities of it to be useful, thereby saving countless lives during WW2.
(Actually, it was quite interesting to see the extent to which the American contribution to WW2 is acknowledged, while that of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa seems to be completely ignored. The Americans have a whole stained glass window, carvings and memorial reminders, but there is nothing to be seen to remind anyone about how the dominions rallied to the cause. Tim thinks that perhaps this is because it was just expected that the Empire would turn up to defend the Mother Country whereas the Brits feel they have to be grateful to the US. Two other Australians in our group were rather peeved about this neglect, muttering about how Australia had been there from the start of the hostilities whereas the American contribution was belated to say the least.)
Whatever about all that, by the time we’d admired Nelson’s monument, we’d had enough of military heroes and sloped off to browse for souvenirs and have a cup of tea. Yes, bizarre as it may seem, right there in the crypt there’s a cafe and a shop!