In the Roof of St Paul’s Cathedral
On the right of this photograph, taken in the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral, is the concave wall of the outer dome and curving away to the left is the convex wall of the painted inner dome that sits inside it, just like an enormous boiled egg beneath a cosy. It is a strange configuration which means the lower dome does not have the bear the weight of the dome roof, and which creates extraordinary incidental spaces that never cease to fascinate me whenever I return to scale this majestic cathedral.
Once I am through the main door, passing all the visitors standing and gazing at the vaulted cathedral ceiling far overhead, I go straight to the entrance to the roof. This was where I came the very first time I was ever permitted to visit London on my own as a child, and I have returned consistently through all the intervening years without disappointment.
Leaving the nave and ascending the stairs, you enter a different St Paul’s – no longer the monumental space dedicated to public worship but a warren of staircases and narrow passages that enable people to run like rats within the walls and emerge again to peer down at their world askance. If you are lucky, your initial burst of enthusiasm will carry you clattering up the wide spiral stairs to the height of the nave roof. At the head of these, formal elegance ceases as you turn left into a crooked passage and right, up a steep, tapering staircase which is only as wide as your shoulders, and where you must lean forward when the ceiling lowers to child height, before – without warning and quite unexpectedly – you step out into the cavernous void of the Whispering Gallery.
This was where I was transfixed by vertigo on my first visit. Sitting perched upon the tenuous balcony that circumscribes the dome with my back to the wall, the emptiness was overwhelming and the expectation of imminent collapse tangible. To this day it remains the most intense spatial experience that I know. I see the space contained by the great dome overhead and the aisles stretching below in four directions and it sets my head reeling, and I cannot avoid envisaging the dome spinning out of kilter and collapsing in an apocalypse. I can feel the magnetism to leap into the nothingness as if it were a great pool. Even the paintings upon the dome fill me with dread that the figures will fall from their precarious height. And each time I come there I must sit, while whispers fly around me, and make peace with these feelings before I can leave.
Sobered by the initial climb and awed by the Whispering Gallery, visitors usually take a moment to relax and scrutinise the views from the Stone Gallery that runs around the base of the exterior dome. Here I sat with my father while he recovered himself, when he came to visit me once when I first moved to London. As we discussed the idle spectacle of the view, I became aware for the first time that he was failing and growing old, and was quietly ashamed of my thoughtlessness in bringing him, when I knew it would be a point of honour for him not to admit to any struggle.
From here you climb into the interior of the domed roof – laced with iron staircases, spiralling and twisting around the central brick cone, like a giant pie funnel, that supports the lantern at the very top. Every wall tilts or curves or arches in a different direction and there is no longer any sense of height, you could equally be underground. Let me confide, on this recent visit, to my surprise and for the first time, this was where I experienced disorientation. I found myself in a space without a horizontal floor and barely any vertical services, hundreds of feet in the air, sandwiched between the roof dome with the sky above and the interior dome beneath – promoting morbid thoughts of smashing through this inner dome to fall like one of the figures from the paintings on the other side of the wall.
Yet as before, none of these grim fantasies were realised and I came safely to the Golden Gallery at the very top of the cathedral, two hundred and eighty feet above the ground. There is a spyhole in the floor there – God’s eye view – that allowed me to look right down through both domes to the floor below where the crowds crept like ants. And then, with the great dome beneath me, I could gaze out upon the city from a point of security, and free of vertigo.
When I climbed back down to ground level, I looked up to the dome from underneath and saw the speck of light from the spyhole and knew that to whoever was gazing at that moment I was now one of the ants. In medieval cathedrals, the focus of the architecture was upon the altar but at St Paul’s it is directly under the dome, where anyone can stand and be at the centre of things. The scale and ingenuity of St Paul’s are both an awe-inducing human achievement and one that makes people feel small too – a suitable irony in a great cathedral designed by a man named after the smallest bird, Wren.
I shall continue to return and climb up to the dome as long as I am able, because my trips to the roof at St Paul’s offer contradictory experiences that unlock me from the day to day. It is a reliable adventure which always delights, surpassing my recollections and revealing new wonders, because the vast scale and intricate configuration of this astounding edifice defy the capacity of the human mind to hold it in memory.
At the foot of the stair.
Graffiti at the entrance to the Stone Gallery.
On the Stone Gallery, at the base of the dome.
Iron staircases spiral in the hidden space between the inner and the outer domes of the cathedral.
Looking through from the top of the lantern down to the floor two hundred and seventy feet below.
Looking West from the Golden Gallery, down the Strand.
Looking East, Christ Church, Spitalfields can be seen top centre.
Looking from the floor to the dome and the lantern above.