n.b. Doors open at 8.30am, so if you get there early you can get minimal people in your photos.
n.b. Going inside St Paul's for a service is free, but you can't take photos during services.
n.b. On Lord Mayor's Show Day climbing to the Galleries requires a ticket and costs £10.
20 things to see inside St Paul's Cathedral
1) The font used to be in the North Transept but was moved, this century, to a more prominent position at the top of the nave. It's carved in blue-veined Italian marble and cost £350 in 1727. The lid isn't usually on. If you want to impress a companion with your architectural knowledge, say "ooh, look at those deeply scooped gadroons". Alongside is the Paschal Candle, a tall thin slow-burner replaced every year at Easter. 2) On the south wall is the beloved painting "The Light of the World" by William Holman Hunt, which depicts Jesus carrying a lantern. It's based on a verse from Revelation chapter 3: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock". The original is at Keble College, Oxford. Hunt painted two reproductions, a smaller version for Manchester Art Gallery and this larger version for St Paul's (although this year it's elsewhere for restoration so what you're actually seeing is a gilded print. 3) The two white cruciform structures leaning symmetrically across the nave were added in 2014, the centenary of WW1. They're by sculptor Gerry Judah and incorporate, somewhat unexpectedly, "small models of towns which have been ravaged by war, including some destroyed in recent conflicts such as Syria and Afghanistan." 4) The door to the upper galleries looks innocuous enough but marks the start of a tortuous climb of over 500 steps. The Whispering Gallery is 30 metres up (and 257 steps). I've never got the whispering thing to work. The Stone Gallery is another 13 metres up (and 119 more steps). It's outdoors and has great views. The Golden Gallery is another 32 metres up (and 152 more giddying steps). It's tiny, shuffly and extraordinary, but I don't think I'd have the balls to do it again.
Dome and Transepts
5) One of the best views in the cathedral is bang in the middlelooking straight up. You're looking at the inside of a decorated hemisphere, but it's not the same dome you can see from outside because that sits on a separate brick cone surrounding a massive void. Christopher Wren only risked building this complex heavy stack because he was good friends with the scientist Robert Hooke who bashed the structural data. Daylight can be seen through a tiny oculus at the top of the lantern. 6) St Paul's has hosted multiple major national events, including the wedding of Charles and Di and most recently the Platinum Jubilee Service of Thanksgiving. When visiting I always like to slump down into one of the multitude of wooden chairs and wonder whose famous backside might have sat here, perhaps for three hours, trying hard not to cough or to pick their nose because they could be on camera. 7) A new step-free entrance opened into the North Transept a couple of years ago. Just inside the cathedral is an elliptical portico made from oak timbers, a transitional space which has been dedicated to the memory of those who died in the coronavirus pandemic. Etched into the wood in gold letters are the words ‘Remember Me’. The electronic and revolving doors are also emblazoned with uplifting messages, and within you can search an online book of remembrance. Memorials have moved on.
Chancel, Ambulatories and High Altar
8) The Quire is where it all happens - the singing, the liturgy and the smaller services that don't get much of a congregation. There are 24 choir stalls plus a throne reserved for the Lord Mayor of London. They didn't used to be visible from the nave until the organ screen was split in 1872. The carvings are by the legendary Grinling Gibbons - this is the greatest concentration of his work anywhere - and features intricate angels, oak leaves, trumpets and limewood floral swags. Sorry, they're roped off to visitors. 9) The poet John Donne's stone effigy has pride of place in the South Ambulatory, a bearded ruffed figure wrapped in a shroud atop a funerary urn. What's extraordinary is that John died in 1631, before the Great Fire destroyed the original building, yet somehow his effigy escaped the flames in one piece and is thus the only pre-Fire monument on display within the main cathedral. 10) Opposite, in Minor Canons' Aisle, is Henry Moore's final large scale work. It's called Mother and Child, made from polished marble and is supposed to depict, as you move round it, conception, gestation and parenting. I couldn't make out the conception bit, which is perhaps just as well, but it is reverently splendid. 11) At the end of the Quire aisles, yanking the cathedral into the 21st century, are two video altarpieces by Bill Viola. One takes Mary as its theme and is a 13 minute triptych which opens with a breastfeeding monk. The other focuses on Martyrs and comes in four slices, each depicting an actor suffering a lingering elemental death. I give it ten years before the cathedral tries introducing devotional holograms. 12) Behind the High Altar, in the one spot a Luftwaffe bomb properly destroyed, is the American Memorial Chapel. It includes a book of remembrance listing over 28,000 US servicemen stationed in the UK, and might feel even more special had it not been opened by Richard Nixon.
13) St Paul's has the largest crypt of any church in Britain, and in pride of place (directly under the dome) is the tomb of Admiral Lord Nelson. His remains are inside a marble sarcophagus originally made for Cardinal Wolsey but never used because he wasn't very popular by the time of his death. The central chamber is surrounded by six recesses where several further military greats are remembered, if not actually buried, some of whom may have you scratching your head ("GORT FM"?). The Nelson Chamber can be hired for drinks receptions (max 200) and sit down dinners (max 20), however inappropriate that sounds. 14) The Duke of Wellington is the centrepiece of the chamber nextdoor, a gloomier lamplit affair hung with decrepit flags. His sarcophagus is seriously chunky, being made from a single piece of Cornish granite, and looks like it would survive another Great Fire of London. A separate equestrian memorial in the nave celebrates his achievements. 15) Which military hero gets the sweet spot immediately inbetween Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington? It's top nurse and statistician Florence Nightingale, holding an alabaster cup to the mouth of a bandaged soldier above the legend 'Blessed Are The Merciful'. She's not actually buried here, her remains are in the family tomb in Hampshire. Her memorial also serves to highlight how ridiculously few women are commemorated in St Paul's Cathedral, seriously bottomscrapingly minimal, and I'd hope somebody somewhere is considering doing something about that. 16) In a corridor behind the Nelson Chamber are a few more charred effigies rescued after 1666, occasionally legless or headless. The door alongside leads to the Choir's practice room, and if you time your visit right you might hear them singing soaring harmonies before emerging and walking in a crocodile towards a secret door hidden in the side of St Martin's Chapel.
17) It's not just the military who are remembered in the crypt, thank goodness, because at the east end the arts and sciences have a significant toehold. The OBE Chapel celebrates achievements in themed clusters, for example a medical wall where the ashes of Alexander Fleming and Henry Wellcome are interred or a musical floor where you might find yourself standing on top of Hubert Parry or Arthur Sullivan. Some are here against their own wishes because monarchs overruled plans to be laid to rest in a provincial family plot. Arguably ending up in Westminster Abbey is a bigger honour, but I doubt Millais or JMW Turner would have complained. 18) Yes, the great architect Sir Christopher Wren is also here, his tomb a simple black slab beside a radiator. He also has the best epitaph, a Latin rendering of "If you seek his monument, look around you". Wren holds the honour of being the first English cathedral architect to see the building completed within his own lifetime. This year is the 300th anniversary of his death and a small nearby exhibition marks the occasion with scale models, stonemason's caps and primary school art. 19) Winston Churchill isn't buried here but since 2004 has boasted a memorial on the scale of Nelson and Wellington - a metalwork screen spanning the crypt and decorated with bronze stars, shotblasted buttons and heraldic shields. It might be more dignified if it didn't also mark the exit to the gift shop and cafe. 20) Coffee, cake, Christmas cards, candles, crosses and choral CDs are all available in the crypt on the way out. You can gain access to the cafe and gift shop without visiting the rest of the cathedral (using the entrance closest to Temple Bar).
n.b. The next freebie visiting day is Saturday 9th November 2024.
n.b. A reminder that I've posted 30 photos of the cathedral on Flickr, none of which are the five photos I've shown you already.