The Lesser Seen Parts of St. Paul’s Cathedral

Not a lot a of people know this, but if you book ahead you can go on a tour of the St. Paul’s Cathedral Triforium. What is the triforium? Well it isn’t anything in particular; just the out of sight parts of the cathedral like the library and where they keep ‘spare parts’ like pervious pulpits.

One of my colleagues on the City Guides course was kind enough to put together a couple of bookings for us to take a field trip as it were. You usually have to pay for the tour, but the cathedral was feeling generous and said they would let us in for free, nice one!

We got there at 2pm last Friday and met our guide, Chris. He said that the tour usually lasts about 45 minutes, but he was at our group’s disposal for the afternoon and would show us anything we wanted. We all grinned.

Up we went the first set of steps that lead up to the whispering gallery, but stopped just short of it and went off into a little door. This brought us into a small room where we could just about see into the whispering gallery:

Peeking up to the Whispering Gallery

From here we moved into a long corridor where we could see a couple of the buttresses of the cathedral. Structurally important, but completely out of public view. A. W. N. Pugin would have hated it.

Buttresses on the left

Along this space there were various prints of the cathedral printed during various stages of the building work. This one is the first ever official print of it, and you can see it was far from what the finished product looked like, especially the dome and the towers:

The first official print of the Cathedral

Further along were bits of stone work from the early Romanesque cathedral, and the better known, later medieval cathedral. They are labelled up as ‘Norman’ and ‘Gothic’ respectively. Though the medieval cathedral was badly damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 it was still standing when Wren started his work on the present one. The old structure was torn down and some of it used as filler for the new cathedral.

Stones from the Medieval Cathedral

Next stop was the library, which is housed in south transept (the cross bit of the cathedral). It mostly focusses on works about St.Paul’s and any books published by people related to it such as the deans. When we popped in there were two people in doing some research, one on the history of the organs (the musical variety rather than the medical kind) and another doing some research I can’t recall. We had a nice little blurb from the librarian about the space as well.

Bust of Wren, St. Paul's Library

We did a little detour to have a look at the Geometric Staircase. This is featured in Harry Potter: Prisoner of Azkaban, but it’s not this exact one. The cathedral wouldn’t allow the crew to film here but did let them take lots of photos to recreate the staircase on set. It was also used in one of my favourite films, The Madness of King George.

The Geometric Staircase

The steps look like they are driven into the wall to be held up, but that’s not the case. They are holding each other up. The top on step rests on a small niche in the one below it, all the way down to the 88th step.

Originally, Wren and his buddy in all things scientific, Robert Hooke, where going to use this space as a telescope. Anyone familiar with the Monument will know they did the same there. Unfortunately they never got around to getting the lens installed into the top of the staircase and it was never used for gazing at the stars.

The Geometric Staircase

Crossing over from the south side of the building to the north was great. In involved this view of the nave:

Looking down on the nave

One of our colleagues isn’t so great with heights, so she rushed past. But the rest of us probably could have spent an age here. We were directly behind the great west window as well and could look out onto Ludgate Hill and Fleet Street.

The west window

To give you an idea where we were, that box is where the Christmas tree is each year:

The Christmas tree goes where that box is

We went around to the north transept, a mirror of where we were for the library. This is where the trophy room is, and the trophy room is where The Great Model is kept. It was what we were all waiting for, the show piece of the tour:

The Great Model

This is the oak model Sir Christopher Wren had built in 1673 of his first design for St. Paul’s Cathedral. It cost him a cool £500. The idea was that it would be big enough that when he showed it to King Charles II, the king could walk into the model (it being up on a plinth a bit higher than this one) and actually see from the inside how the new cathedral would be laid out. Of course this design was turned down and Wren would have to go somewhat back to the drawing board. Once he did get a design ok’d by the crown and the government he was given permission to alter it as he saw fit. Jackpot. He got the foundation and the walls built up to the design of his liking. By that point, it would have been too expensive to get him to start over again and so Wren made St. Paul’s Cathedral as he wished.

The Great Model

To give it some scale, here’s me beside the Great Model:

365-52 The Great Model - it's bigger than me.

Shame that we couldn’t get inside it. Ah well, can’t win them all. At that point, it was the end of the official tour. Our guide said if we wanted though we could go have a look at the choir and the crypt. And so we merrily did. We got to sit in the seats of the choir and here all about the changing decor of it, how it was fairly light in the early days. The Victorians thought it drab and Victorianised it. After damage to the choir in WW2, the rebuilding work was a bit more toned down and is what we see today.

We also learned that the organs dotted around the cathedral are controlled by pneumatic pipes. This allows more than one organ to be used, and the keyboard console controlling them to be moved about. When we were crossing the top of the nave we could see one such organ that was installed in 1977 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Apparently this one is super loud and Her Majesty had actually asked for the volume of it to be lowered. To be on the safe side, they simply don’t use it when she’s in the cathedral. Fair play.

We then went down to the crypt and had a look at Wren and his family, and of course Nelson and Wellington. Something that I proudly already knew was that Nelson’s sarcophogus that is atop his monument was originally intended for Cardinal Wolsley way back in the 16th century. It was acquired by Henry VIII when he took posession of the Cardinals goods and it was moved to Windsor to be put in storage. There it stayed until 1805 when something was needed for Nelson. What luck we had this knocking about Windsor Castle completely un-used.

Something I didn’t know that was that during the funeral service, Nelson’s coffin was set upon a platform which made it look like it was on the floor of the cathedral (right under the center of the dome). At the end of the service, the platform was cranked down, and with it Nelson’s coffin seemingly sank into the floor, down into the crypt. Nobody was expecting that and it was quite the spectacle.

At this point the cathedral was closing and we were being reminded we had to get out. We thanked our guide profusely. What was meant to be a 45 minute tour, turned into about 3 hours of top notch guiding. You may not get that when you book, but still take a look at going on a Triforium Tour. It’s worth it.

For more photos, head on over to my Flickr page.

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