Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Supertour at St. Paul's Cathedral and Exploring Southwark

Wednesday, May 15, 2009

London slumbered under leaden skies this morning, though, thankfully, the rain stayed at bay. Wearing warm cardigans to ward off the chill, Chriselle and I set off after a cereal and yogurt breakfast to explore St. Paul's Cathedral. Though I have been there for several services throughout the past 8 months, I hadn't taken a formal guided tour and was waiting to share that experience either with Llew or Chriselle. So I was very pleased indeed when my new English friend Bishop Michael Colclough, Canon-Pastor at St. Paul's and his wife Cynthia, offered me a complimentary guided tour anytime I wanted one. With Chriselle currently visiting me, it seemed like the perfect time to take them up on it and we had one fixed for us for 10. 45 am.

We arrived at the Cathedral to find it swarming with visitors--both inside and out. Tour groups, several of whom comprised students from around London and across the Channel, filled the vast nave of the church. At the Visitor's Desk, I was ushered to the one run by the Friends of St. Paul's, an organization of Volunteers (mainly women), who are trained to give guided tours. This Supertour took us to parts of the Cathedral not usually open to the public and we felt privileged indeed to take it at our leisure in so special a fashion.

We were told by our guide, Fiona Walker, that it would last an hour and a half and were ushered right away to a side Chapel--dedicated to one of the many formal 'Orders' that comprise aristocratic English life. I do not believe that even a lifetime would be adequate in helping me acquire enough knowledge to decipher the complex system that prevails in military and royal circles int this country. What I did admired in this chapel was the royal seat that only the monarch can occupy, the marvelous wooden carvings by the Tudor carver Grindling Gibbons (whose work I can now easily recognize), the many colorful banners and standards and crests and coat of arms that symbolize one's family history.

We then moved to the massive oak doors in the very front of the church and learned a bit of history at that point including the part played by Sir Christopher Wren in the design and construction of this, perhaps London's most distinctive landmark. At the door, we also saw how dark the interior looked until the massive cleaning and renovation was carried out through a vast endowment (11 million pounds) granted to the cathedral by the Fleming family, the same one from which was born the James Bond author Ian!

Next we were led into one of the twin towers that looks down Fleet Street and we were quite taken by the beautiful staircase with its small and very low steps and the ironwork that climbs all the way to the very top. These steeples house the bells that toll each hour and produce the marvelous music on important days. I once heard them chime a heart stirring tune on Palm Sunday--was it last year? The entire city seemed to reverberate to the melody produced by those tolling bells. Yes, they do bring to mind John Donne's stirring lines:

"No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." (Meditation XVII)

Interestingly, there is a rather strange looking sculpture of John Donne in the Cathedral--strange because the poet appears all shrouded in a linen sheet and standing on an urn. It was the only object in the entire Cathedral to escape the Great Fire of London in 1566 because it was hit by a falling object and fell straight down into the crypt from where it was rescued when the embers and ashes were being cleared. And he appears in this shroud because Donne had actually worn the garment in which he wished to be buried while he was still alive--perhaps to get the feeling of how he might appear before his Creator at his Resurrection!

Onward we went deeper into the Cathedral, passing by the grand monument to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and there we learned a bit more British history. Chriselle is beginning to "connect the dots" as she puts it, in that she is making connections between the guy who inhabited Apsley House and the hero of the Battle of Waterloo! It wasn't long before we paused under the central dome to admire the Byzantine style mosaics done by Salviati, an Italian, whose work was inspired by the Italian churches. The dome also contains the magnificent paintings done by James Thornhill--yes, the same artist who painted the famous Painted Hall in Greenwich. Chriselle loved the trompe l'oeil quality of the paintings in the dome which appeared as if the inside was covered with columns and pillars. We saw primary school kids lying flat on the floor right under the dome and staring at it--I bet this is something they will always remember. Years from now, when they bring their own kids to the Cathedral they will say, "You know, when I was a little boy, I came to this church on a school field trip and lay down right there on my back and stared up at the dome!"

More detail and more history followed at the memorial to Lord Nelson, considered by many to be England's greatest hero. The guide went into detail in talking about his relationship with Lady Emma Hamilton and the product of that alliance, a female child, "named", she said, then paused for effect, "poor thing, Horatia!" Right opposite the Nelson monument is one to Cornwallis and I paused to tell Chriselle that he was the same one who met with a stunning defeat under General George Washington in York when trying to vanquish the rebel colonists in North America. It was probably as a punishment that he was sent off to India where he masterminded the defeat of Tipu Sultan of Mysore at Seringapatnam and, in doing so, somewhat redeemed his fallen image!

Then, we were at the altar, admiring more Grindling Gibbons' caved choir stalls (each more breathtaking that the next, in oak and beech) and gazing upon the baldachino or altar canopy which looked to me curiously like the Bernini one in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. We saw also the 'Cathedra' or Seat which the Bishop occupies and which turns a church into a cathedral--it must contain a seat for a Bishop which means that a Bishop must be attached to the permanent clergy at the church.

And then we climbed down into the crypt where we saw more memorials, the most striking being the ones to Wren, Wellesley and Nelson in their striking sarcophagi. Nelson's, in grand black granite, is particularly striking and I was not surprised to learn that it was, in fact, designed and created to hold the mortal remains of Cardinal Wolsley (pronounced 'Wool-zy') who was Henry VIII's right hand man until he fell out of favor with the King for not bringing him the Papal annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. He was sentenced to death but, mercifully for him, died a natural death before he could be killed. He certainly was not permitted such a grand coffin and, in any case, the possessions of all state prisoners went directly to the Crown--which explains how Henry got his greedy hands on Wolsley's finest buildings including Hampton Court and Whitehall Palace (of which now only the Banqueting House survives). The sarcophagus lay forgotten somewhere until the body of Nelson arrived from weeks of preservation in brandy--for Nelson really ought to have been given a burial at sea. However, since he was such an extraordinary hero, an exception was made in order to grant him a state burial. His body was preserved in alcohol, brought to London, this sarcophagus was resurrected for the occasion and the nation had a chance to mourn collectively for the death of a great hero who fell on the HMS Victory (now docked in Portsmouth) and whose blood-stained clothes are in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Climbing up to the Dome of St. Paul's:
When the tour ended, we were told that we should not leave the cathedral without venturing up into the dome. I was doubtful about my ability to undertake such strenuous physical exercise since I am still recovering from plantar fascitis; but with encouragement from Chriselle, I rose to the challenge and off we went. 117 steps later, we were in the Whispering Gallery looking down on to the black and white checkered floors of the vast cavern below us. It was just stupendous! Of course, Chriselle and I had to try out the whispering capabilities of the acoustics of the space and discovered that we could, in fact, hear each other clearly though we stood on opposite sides of the dome. I was reminded very much of the interior of Brunelleschi's dome in Florence and the magnificent painting on the inside of the dome by Vasari which one can see at very close quarters if you have the energy and stamina to climb the 500 odd steps to that height.

Then, another 115 steps took up to the Stone Gallery which encircles the outside of the dome and provides views of the rooftops of London. Yes, we saw the river (rather murky on this grey day) and the London Eye and the gilded statue of the Goddess of Justice atop Old Bailey and a host of other landmarks as well as the red brick of the Prudential Assurance Building that is just a block away from my building on High Holborn.

We circumnavigated our way around the dome then made the descent with Chrissie holding on to me all the way down as she felt a little dizzy. Then, because we were right in the area, I suggested a walking tour of the Southwark area instead of trying to get into a bus to Knightsbridge. Chrissie had made drinks and dinner plans with two friends of hers and wanted to get home for a bit of a rest as she has a severe backache when she exerts herself too much physically. I have to be grateful that my own stamina has remained untouched by plantar fascittis and but for the fact that I have to rest more than I used to, I can continue my daily walking routine without interruption.

Exploring Southwark:
So over Wobbly Bridge we went, the breeze feeling very unpleasant around us given the lack of sunshine. Past Shakespeare's Globe we strolled, arriving under Southwark Bridge where we hastened to the Borough Market as I wanted Chriselle to get a sense of its delicious activity. Alas, it is not open fully on a Wednesday though a few stalls cater to the luncheon needs of the local working populace. We walked quickly on to The George, the city's only galleried pub, where we took in the quaintness of the Elizabethan space. Then, we returned to Borough Market for a late lunch: a large helping of Thai Green Chicken and Seafood Curry served over steamed rice. It was dished up piping hot and was deliciously spicy and just what the doctor ordered on this rather chilly day.

Inside Southwark Cathedral:
On our way back to the Embankment, we paid a short visit to Southwark Cathedral that dates from 909 AD--in particular to visit the sculpture of Shakespeare and the lovely stained glass window right above it that provides glimpses into his most famous plays. This allowed us to play a little guessing game together before Chriselle made her three wishes--you are permitted three wishes every time you visit a church for the first time (at least that is what my mother told us, many years ago).

We also took in the brightly painted medieval memorial to John Gower and saw the lovely stone carved altar with some gilding on a couple of its statues. This had been under scaffolding when I had visited last March with my friend Amy, so it is great to see the impact that all this refurbishment has on the space. While we were taking pictures at the Shakespeare memorial, a lady came up and told us that there is a charge for taking pictures!!!Can you imagine that? We told her that we were unaware of the policy and she said that we'd have to pay if we took another. Of course, we had finished our visit by that point and were on our way out--but I have to say that I find these rather materialistic policies of these churches not just irritating but rather offensive.

Off to the Tate Modern:
Then, we were walking along the Thames Embankment again, making our way to the Tate Modern where I wanted to show Chrissie two things: the extraordinarily concept that converted the Hydroelectric Power plant into a Modern Art Gallery and the silver installation by Cornelia Parker entitled Thirty Pieces of Silver. She was already far more tired than I was and since modern art is not something that either one of us can truly engage with (though I understand it intellectually), we went directly to the Parker gallery to admire her work. It involved the flattening of about 1000 pieces of silverware under a steam roller. These were then arranged in thirty lots that are suspended from the ceiling on steel wire. The idea is so remarkable that it is worthy of examination for just this reason. Needless to say, Chriselle was quite speechless and didn't quite know how to react to this...but then that is exactly what Modern Art does to me. I find myself quite lost for words!

We decided to get on the bus and head home as Chriselle badly wanted to rest. I, however, continued on towards Oxford Circus as Marks and Spencer is having a sale on lingerie and I needed to buy my stock before I return to the States. I discovered that my size was not available but if I carried on to their Marble Arch branch, they could take an order from me there. I pressed on, and another bus ride later, I was at the bigger branch placing my order and told to return after May 22 to pick it up. I will be in France at that time but on the day I get back, I can rush off back to Marble Arch to get the discounted price. Along the way, I discovered that Selfridges has been renovated and is now devoid of the scaffolding under which it was shrouded for so many months while it received a deep cleansing in time for its centenary celebrations. There are lights and yellow decorations all over it and I believe the store is worthy of a visit--so I shall try to get there when I find myself under less pressure.

Another bus took me to my office at NYU where I had to do a bit of photocopying before I send off some receipts to New York for reimbursement.

Back home, I found that Chriselle had left the house to meet her friends. This left me time to attend to my email, have my dinner and sit down to write this blog before I got down to grading a few papers and taking a shower before bed.


Fëanor said...

Hello again! It's good to have a daily update on London's sights - we who live here tend to get a bit blase, I think, and observations by a fresh pair of eyes are especially necessary, don't you think?

Couple of things: Battersea was a coal-fired power station, not hydroelectric; also, if you are interested in the various bridges over the Thames, you might find these posts useful.

Rochelle's Roost said...

Thanks for the clarification. Also, I don't think the Tate Modern Museum was created out of the Battersea Power Station because that one still stands in Battersea, doesn't it? So I think I am factually incorrect on two counts. Do you know what the Power station that now houses the Tate Modern was formerly called?

Fëanor said...

Tate Modern is in the former Bankside power station (oil-fired!) (see here, for example. Battersea Power Station (originally proposed to house Tate Modern) is a listed building for its Art Deco features. So that's a bit of an architectural wonder as well, if you like Art Deco. Both these stations were designed originally by the same architect, Giles Scott.