Reflections from Last Summer: An Epic Visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral

Last summer, we celebrated the reduction in COVID-related restrictions with a visit to see family overseas. One of our stops was London. There are many things I could write about that visit, but one that comes to mind is the day we visited St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is freshly on my mind as I walked by it on another trip to London recently. The day we visited St. Paul’s Cathedral was the day the kids learned about its role in London’s history, baroque style, and the day we made a bad choice that would lead to one of my scariest travel experiences.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral: The Overview

St Paul’s Cathedral is located within the City of London on Ludgate Hill, which is the city’s highest point. Whether you are a religious person or not, St. Paul’s Cathedral is a must-do from an art and historical perspective. If you feel awe-struck by it on the outside, you will feel that times two when you walk in. Intricate carvings fill the architectural masterpiece, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the original iteration was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. He was also the first of many key figures laid to rest there in the Crypt. Many influential people, from artists to scientists, are buried there. 

The Anglican cathedral attracts many tourists during times when one of the daily services isn’t taking place. The cost to tour ranges by age, whether individual or group, and whether you reserve online or not. You can also participate in a tour or self-guided tour. If bringing younger children, getting a kids’ multimedia guide from the help station is highly recommended. There is even a very nice gift shop on the bottom floor with items for all ages.

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The Intrigue of the Golden Gallery

Just when I thought we were about to leave the cathedral because, quite frankly, I was exhausted, Kieren saw a sign that said “Golden Gallery this way.” Since it had the word gold in it, and who doesn’t want to see a gallery full of gold, they (as in the other three people in my group) decided it would be a great idea to go. I am sure there was fine print somewhere saying what this was, but nobody took time to read. Before I knew it, the kids and Peter were heading up a never-ending spiral staircase and I was chasing behind.  

If you are reading this and you have been to St. Paul’s and have visited the Golden Gallery, you are likely laughing or doing a double facepalm right about now. We had no clue what we were about to get into. I thought we would climb some, but not too many, stairs to a view overlooking the inside of the cathedral overlooking golden ornamental aspects. Nope. 

The Reality of the Golden Gallery

There are 530 steps to get to the Golden Gallery. Some were those of a sturdy, spiral staircase where our journey began, but after the midway point things changed. Suddenly, it felt like we were walking up a fire escape where you could see down through the slots, and we were progressing higher and higher up. There was literally no turning back at this point because it was one-way only and that way was up.

My husband was in the front with Isabelle behind him, then me, and Kieren. I was trying hard not to scream or cry. I was squeezing Isabelle’s hand so tight because I was afraid that she could somehow fall through the side railing even though my rational brain was trying to tell me otherwise. Another part of me felt like I was the one who needed the stability (any stability!) of another person’s hand in mine. Looking down was a dizzying experience in a true “don’t look down” moment. But hey, pretty soon we would be back inside the dome part and on our way down, right? False.

In the midst of panic, I was hit in the face by sunlight coming from an opening. The golden sun? Where were we? We had ended up on the OUTSIDE observation balcony overlooking the city of London from one of the highest points. Gulp. For those that have a total or selective fear of heights, this is your worst nightmare…trust me. I have overlooked the Grand Canyon and this scared me more. With little foot space from the edge we ended up holding hands in an inverted ring-around-the-rosy type fashion, with me freaking out the entire time, for what seemed like a lifetime. I don’t remember the climb down, but I do remember the awesome nap I took afterwards to de-stress from the whole debacle. The rest of the family did well overall, compared to me at least!

If you would love an incredible view of the city and have no fear of heights, there is truly no better place than the Golden Gallery. I’ll go one step further and say that it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience because the view is unparalleled. On the other hand, if you have any fear of heights and don’t want to accidentally slip and say something you’ll regret in or outside of a holy place, I suggest sticking to the main cathedral areas. 

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The tiny circular feature on the top is the Golden Gallery, my never-again place.

Fun Facts About St. Paul’s Cathedral

Aside from the brief, but real terror of the overlook, in the grand scheme of things we’ll remember the many things we learned about St. Paul’s Cathedral including the following fun facts:

  • The dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral is 366 feet high and one of the largest in the world.
  • The inside of the dome is called the Whispering Gallery. This is because a whisper on one side of the gallery can be heard by someone standing on the opposite side.
  • There are 7,189 pipes on the cathedral’s organ!
  • Many important historical events have taken place there including Price Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding in 1981.
  • St. Paul’s has been shown or depicted in many films including Mary Poppins (1964).

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Categories: Exploration and Education