For more than 1,400 years, a church dedicated to St Paul has stood at the highest point in the City of London, Ludgate Hill. The first three burnt down but the current magnificent structure, masterminded by celebrity architect of the day, Sir Christopher Wren, has remained (almost) intact for nearly 400 years.
Seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London, the Grade I-listed national treasure has been at the centre of British religious and architectural history since its foundation centuries ago: it’s a real gem and not just for tourists.
From royal weddings to the preaching of radical new ideas, here are nine things you didn’t know about St Paul’s Cathedral.
It houses some astonishingly big bells
Great Paul is the second largest bell ever cast in the British Isles (the largest was the one used during the 2012 Olympic Games). He weighs 16.5 tons and forms one of the largest set of ringing bells on the planet. See it in action in the video below:
It has an designer apparel collection – but it’s just for those with an honour
You wouldn’t think a cathedral would be associated with bling but St Paul’s shop sports OBE giftware you can only buy if you’re only a member of the Order. Unsure of what this means? You basically need an OBE, MBE, BEM, GBE, KBE, DBE or CBE at the end of your name. The snazzy collection (think ties, medals, cufflinks) was jointly put together by the cathedral and Toye, Kenning & Spencer, a 300-year old family-run institution. Everything on sale has been approved personally by Her Majesty the Queen as sovereign of the supreme order. For all the lords, dames and knights who haven’t been yet, all proceeds from purchases go towards the maintenance of the Order’s Chapel.
It’s a haven for Mary Poppins and Harry Potter fans
If you’re a little upset over the fact you can’t get your hands on that OBE collection and love Disney classic Mary Poppins, you’ll be pleased to know that the shop also offers a Birds collection. The steps of the famous cathedral were used as the location for the magical song in the 1964 classic starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. With Hollywood being Hollywood, though, the real scene was actually filmed at the Walt Disney studio in Los Angeles. Rest assured, no one will mind if you start a shant on the steps – you wouldn’t be the first.
Remember Divination lessons in Harry Potter? Good. The cathedral’s stunning Dean’s staircase was used to film all the scenes featuring Harry, Ron, Hermione and friends running up to Professor Trelawney’s classes. You’ll find the beautiful thing just by the entrance on the south aisle.
It’s one of the most Instagrammable spots in London
If you take a photo inside the cathedral, one of the lovely boys and girls who look after the place might take your leg off. Sadly, photography is strictly prohibited inside the cathedral walls (except during special events) but have no fear Instagrammers because there are views for days up in the Golden Gallery. If you can manage and survive the 528-step climb, you’ll be treated to some of the finest panoramic views in the capital – trust me, I’ve climbed and seen it for myself six times.
See everything from The London Eye to The Shard, the City, Palace of Westminster, Alexandra Palace and – on a clear day – Windsor Castle. Tip: just before you climb the final staircase onto the gallery, look out for the peep hole that looks onto the cathedral floor. It’s one of the most amazing snaps you’ll ever get.
Martin Luther King Jr once read a sermon at the cathedral
Canon John Collins invited Martin Luther King Jr to speak to a congregation of over 4,000 people at St Paul’s in 1964. The former political activist and Baptist minister spoke about three different approaches to life in a sermon now known as The Three Dimensions to a Complete Life.
St Paul’s Cathedral survived the Blitz
In 1913, suffragettes planted a bomb under the Bishop’s throne in the choir, in an effort to bring awareness to their struggle.If it had been successfully detonated, a significant amount of damage could have been done. It may have even potentially started a fire. Fortuitously, the mechanism was faulty and the bomb did not explode.
It was the tallest building in London for 250 years
From 1710 to 1965, the 365-foot-high cathedral was the tallest building in the capital. It lost its title to the BT Tower in 1962, which was topped out and opened to the public in 1965. Since then, much has changed and the cathedral is now the 53rd tallest building in the capital. It still, however, remains the tallest place of worship in London – let’s just hope the Shard doesn’t open a church.
Climb the Dome
Obviously, we can’t discuss St. Paul’s without mentioning the Dome. Reached internally by around 560 steps, it’s still the second largest in Europe (to Rome’s St. Peter’s). Supported by eight arches, it weighs 66,000 tonnes, reaches up to 111 metres, and its internal façade is decorated in the frescoes of Sir James Thornhill. It has three galleries (the well-known Whispering Gallery, the external Stone Gallery, and the narrow Golden Gallery). From this top platform, the views of the City are simply divine.
Gallery of Sorts
The cathedral prides itself on being a gallery of sorts for various artworks as well. In 2010, the Anthony Gormley sculpture Flare II was installed in the Geometric Staircase, while in 2014 Gerry Judah was commissioned for an installation (to commemorate the centenary of WWI) in the nave. Even Yoko Ono has had an installation in the cathedral. And, of course, Henry Moore’s 1943 limestone carving of the Mother and Child rests in the north choir aisle (while Moore himself rests in the crypt below).