The white building across the grey street sat like a regal giant against the London sky. It hurt my neck as I craned to see it towering towards the clouds. St Paul’s Cathedral isn’t just an important landmark in London; at 365 feet high, it dots the skyline too. If I’d known then that I’d have to climb more than 500 steps to make my way to the top, I’d probably never have gone in.
‘The Nave’–the long main entrance–welcomed me to the choir setting that glimmered with mosaic-dome and arches. The closest association I could make with the intricate interiors of this cathedral was that of the Mysore Palace back in the city of Mysore in India. But I’d never seen a house of God receive such palatial treatment before. It couldn’t have been an easy feat trying to build this monument. I could see that.
What I couldn’t see, however, was the impact of the several assaults this beauty of a structure had undergone before it looked like this. When I entered the choir area, I drew a sharp breath. Not because the carvings on the apse and the high altar were exquisite, but because my audioguide began to narrate that the altar was ruined due to a bombing in 1940, before being rebuilt.
Right from its birth in the 7th century as a small Norman-Anglican church, St Paul’s had had a tough time standing its ground. Literally. In the 600s, the church caught fire and had to be rebuilt. In the 900s, the Vikings destroyed it during their invasion, calling for a rebuild–this time with stones. Being rock-solid seemed to help a little, if only for a while. In the 1500s, in quite a biblical fashion, the spire was hit by lightning. However, it only brought down the spire, while the rest of the church stood strong. The spire wasn’t rebuilt then–no points for guessing why–and thankfully so, because the Great Fire of London in 1666 claimed the rest of the church too.
Even as I tried to grapple with the information of such damages through the millennium, I made my way to the crypt area, wanting to pay homage to John Donne, one of my favourite poets. He stood there as a stone effigy, near the memorials for other honourable names–Florence Nightingale, William Blake, Alexander Fleming and many more. This peaceful crypt had been destroyed in the Great Fire, leaving only Donne’s effigy intact. That’s not all. The crypt had lost several precious artefacts to a major robbery in 1810.
If Donne’s effigy could survive a colossal fire, then, I could survive the 257 steps to the Whispering Gallery, I decided. After all, several people had tried so hard to keep this structure standing strong. So, after much huffing and puffing, and pausing every ten steps on the spiral staircase, I made it to the Whispering Gallery. This structure forms the lowermost part of the dome and runs along its interior. The gallery offers a stunning view of the cathedral’s elaborate floor. It is said that the walls of this gallery can make even the softest of whispers audible on your opposite side. I wondered if the people on the other side could hear me trying to catch my breath.
But the 360-degree bird view of the arches and pillars was certainly worth the tiring climb. I couldn’t believe that this was how the cathedral looked after withstanding not only the disasters up until the 1800s but also the Blitz during World War II in the 20th century. I saw no traces of the bombing, only pristine architectural features. It was shocking to see that this colossal cathedral could stand so strong and beautiful, despite its gruesome history.
Something about the cathedral’s hard times made the 528-steps climb to the Golden Gallery– the topmost open gallery–seem like a small feat. By the time the breeze tickled the sweat beads on my face at 365 feet above the ground, I was practically wheezing. But within a few moments, my body and mind both seemed to still. The din of the tourists around me faded away. I was suddenly one with the sky as if I were closer to the heavens.
Down below, I’d heard the cathedral echo the steadfastness of faith, in the face of all kinds of destruction. Upon this Golden Gallery, open to the sky, I stood witness to the infinite potential of the human spirit. This structure embodies the stunning feats humankind can achieve when it manages to overcome the harsh curveballs life throws at it. St. Paul’s Cathedral isn’t simply an architectural delight; it is an epitome of the divine strength we carry within us.