The Home of Young Royals

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Kensington Palace, set in Kensington Gardens in London, has been a royal residence since the 17th-century. It is currently the home of several members of the British royal family, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the recently married Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Parts of the palace, namely the State Rooms, are open to the public under the care of the independent charity Historic Royal Palaces. These rooms also contain many paintings and objects belonging to the royal collection.

Throughout its 300 year history, Kensington Palace has been a number of things, including army barracks, a museum, a home and, most importantly, a setting for the royal court. Kensington was originally a small, remote village with acres of open fields on which sat a simple squire’s mansion known as Nottingham House. In 1689, a year after James II (1633-1701) had been deposed, the new joint monarchs William III (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-94) purchased the house, thus putting Kensington clearly on the map.

The house was fairly small in comparison to the size of the palace today. Shortly after purchasing the building for £20,000, the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, famously remembered for the reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral, was hired to transform the house into a suitable royal residence. Although the Palace has since been extended further, this initial extension added several rooms, for instance, a chapel, kitchens, stables and, most importantly, the State Apartments.

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Staircase leading to the King’s State Apartments

The State Apartments are part of the palace open to visitors and are included in the initial entrance fee. The King’s rooms are located at the top of a painted staircase. When William and Mary moved in at the beginning of the 1690s, this staircase was furnished with plain wooden panels, however, this was replaced with the staircase still in place today during the Georgian-era.

William III had little interest in the palace after his wife died in 1694, although he did entertain the Russian Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) here in 1698. Queen Anne (1665-1714) was disinclined to make any changes to the building when she moved in, however, she did concentrate on the garden, adding an Orangery in 1705. Having no direct heir, Anne passed her throne to Georg Ludwig Elector of Hanover (1660-1727) who was distantly related to James I (1566-1625). George I was later succeeded by his son, George II (1683-1760), and it was during both their reigns that many changes and embellishments occurred at Kensington Palace.

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Georgian designer. Yorkshire-born William Kent

As visitors will see as they ascend the stairs to the King’s State Rooms, the walls are painted with imaginary architecture featuring balconies from which Georgian ladies and gentlemen look down at the passers-by. Yeomen of the Guard in their red uniforms stand among these figures and it is thought some of the characters were based on real members of the royal court. Identified people include the king’s page Ulric, Turkish servants and a feral boy named Peter who had been found living in the woods in Germany.

Interestingly, the artist commissioned to paint the King’s rooms was not Sir James Thornhill (1676-1734), the leading painter at the time, but the lesser known William Kent (1685-1748). The rather arrogant but talented artist included a portrait of himself on the ceiling wearing his artist’s cap and holding a palette.

The first room in the tour of the King’s State Apartments is the Presence Chamber. Sparsely furnished, this is where the reigning king received his important guests whilst seated on a throne under a crimson silk damask canopy. Although the original is either lost or too worn for display, a replica is in place in the Presence Chamber today.

Once again, William Kent produced the ceiling paintings and was inspired by the recently excavated houses on the Palatine Hill in Rome. In the centre circle, the Roman god Apollo is riding his chariot through the sky on a dark cloud. Surrounding the fireplace is a handful of Grinling Gibbons or sleeping cherubs surrounded by roses, which were once painted lead white, however, are now plain limewood.

Those lucky enough to be allowed further into the King’s State Rooms would next enter into the Privy Chamber, which was once Queen Caroline (1683-1737), the wife of George II’s favourite place to entertain guests and family.

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Privy Chamber

Again, Kent is responsible for the painted ceiling, which features Mars, the Roman god of war and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. These mythological figures are said to represent the king and queen. George II was the last British king to lead his troops into battle and Caroline had particular interests in art and science.

The walls of the Privy Chamber are hung with tapestries that come from the Mortlake Tapestry set representing the months of the year, once owned by Charles I (1600-49). These particular draperies show four different months: February, July, August and November.

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The Cupola Room

Following on from the Privy Chamber is the Cupola Room, which was the first room decorated by William Kent and definitely shows off his skill. Through his excellent use of Trompe-l’œil, an art technique which creates the optical illusion that the depicted objects are three-dimensional, Kent recreated a baroque Roman palace with the Star of the Order of the Garter in the centre of the ceiling. This impressed George I and earned Kent the honour of decorating the other rooms.

Today, the decor of the Cupola Room is overshadowed by an intriguing object in the centre of the room. After walking around it several times, visitors will realise that it is, in fact, a clock, albeit with the tiniest clock face. It is also a music box that once played music by Handel (1685-1759) as well as a work of art. The four panels on the upper portion of the object contain paintings depicting four ancient monarchies. Known as the ‘Temple of the Four Great Monarchies of the World’, this clock-cum-music-box was purchased by Princess Augusta (1719-72), the daughter-in-law of George II.

The Cupola Room was usually used for parties and dancing, although in 1819 it was the location for the baptism of the future Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Born to the Duke and Duchess of Kent, it was the Prince Regent (later George IV (1762-1830)) who decided on her name: Alexandrina Victoria, named after the Russian Tsar and Victoria’s mother respectively.

Next door to the Cupola Room is the King’s Drawing Room, which was also used for parties. The ceiling, once again painted by William Kent, shows the Roman god Jupiter accidentally killing his lover Semele. On the walls hang several paintings, one of which was a particular favourite of George II. Venus and Cupid by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) still hangs in the room today, however, during 1735 when the king was in Hanover, Queen Caroline had it removed in preference of her collection of Van Dyck (1599-1641) portraits. On his return, the enraged king insisted on the reinstatement of his beloved painting.

Whilst the dancing was going on next door, the queen would often retreat to the Drawing Room with a handful of guests to play cards. Visitors to the palace are provided with the opportunity to play three types of games the Royals may once have played. The first is a board game titled Game of Court in which players navigate around the board to be the first to greet the king. Each player starts with twelve coins, although in the Georgian-era they would have played with their own money, and throws two dice to determine how far they travel along the board. Some squares contain instructions that may involve paying money, missing a turn or being rewarded. For example, if you land on 42, you “Lose 200 Guineas playing Cards. Pay a coin and roll a double to move.” On the other hand, landing on 18 “You speak the language of the court, French, superbly. Move forward the same number of squares again.” The player to reach the finish square first wins all the coins that have been put into the pot throughout the game.

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The second green baize card table contains a set of playing cards, which can be used to play a multiple of games. What is interesting about these particular cards is their design. The suit and number appear in the top left-hand corner but the rest of the card contains a verse and music notes. Take, for example, the seven of spades:
Come sweet lass,
Let’s banish sorrow
Till To’morrow;
Come sweet lass,
Let’s take a chirping glass.
Wine can clear
The vapours of despair;
And make us light as air;
Then drink and banish care.

On the third table is a dice game of chance named Hazard. Again, each player begins with twelve coins and the first player throws two dice. The number rolled, so long as it is either the number 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9, decides the game’s “lose” number. The second roll of the dice determines the “win” number, so long as it is the number 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 (but not the same as the “lose” number). Once these numbers have been established, the game can begin. Each player takes turns rolling the dice, putting in one coin in the pot every time it is their turn. If the “lose” number is thrown, that player is now out. When a player throws the “win” number, the game is over and that player wins all the coins that have been put in the pot.

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In the Drawing Room, Cupola Room and one of the adjoining rooms are a few examples of Georgian fashion. Visitors may be shocked by the width of the skirts ladies were expected to wear. Called a mantua, ladies were required to wear a coat-like dress with a train spread out over an enormous petticoat supported by a hoop. Unless they were attending parties at the palace, the wearers had to enter the room sideways because most doorways could not accommodate the width of the skirt. It was also very difficult to walk in and the hooped skirt forced ladies to take tiny steps, making it appear as though they were rolling along on wheels.

The dresses tended to be very frilly, the sleeves having at least three rows of ruffles. When attending the palace, ladies wore their best jewellery and feathers in their hair. They were also expected to carry a fan to be used as a form of sign language. By waving a fan in a particular way, one could signal the message “I am married” or “go away” as well as more encouraging words.

Men, whilst not burdened with a mantua, had other fashion rules to abide. All gentlemen had to wear a wig, regardless of the quality of their own hair. Their suit was embroidered with intricate designs and worn with silk stockings and pumps with glittery buckles. It was also customary to have a sword tied to your waist. While these costumes may sound extravagant today, the Georgian belief was you can never be overdressed.

A small room leading off from the Drawing Room is delegated Queen Caroline’s Closet. At one point in history, William III used this as a bedchamber and George I used it as a storage room for his books. Caroline, on the other hand, used it as a display room for hundreds of small paintings, miniatures and embroidery. The star exhibit was a precious portfolio the queen had discovered hidden in a cabinet. It contained many drawings by the famous Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) of Henry VIII (1491-1547) and his Tudor subjects. These were not finished artworks but studies of sitters for paintings. A couple of examples are on display today.

The final room in the tour of the King’s State Rooms is the King’s Gallery, which was built for William III. Although the walls are now red, it was originally hung with green velvet and the king would meet here with his spies to plan his military campaigns. In the centre of the room hangs a wind-dial made by Robert Morden (1650-1703), which was attached to a weather vane on the roof of the palace. This allowed William to see what direction the wind was blowing and judge whether there was a risk of invasion. While resting in this room after breaking his collar bone in a riding accident, it is believed William III caught a chill, which led to pneumonia and ultimately his death.

The green walls were replaced with red damask for George I and William Kent painted scenes from the life of the Roman hero Ulysses on the ceiling. Many of the picture frames and statues in the room were also designed by Kent. At the eastern end of the room hung Van Dyck’s painting of Charles I, which, in more recent years, has been replaced with a copy.

Other paintings in the room are a mix of religious and classical stories. A painting by Jacopo Bassano (1510-92) depicts the great flood recorded in the story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis 6-9. The painting shows people’s futile attempts to save children and animals from the deepening water. The Flood came into the possession of the Royal Collection when it was purchased by Charles I from the Gonzaga collection in Mantua.

There are also biblical scenes from the New Testament, for example, Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Bonifazio de’ Pitati (1487-1553). This was also acquired by Charles I and shows the scene described in John 4:5-26 where Christ rests at Jacob’s well on his way to Galilee. Here he meets and speaks with a Samaritan woman, something that was not allowed at the time, using the water in the well as a metaphor for salvation.

In 1835, the King’s Gallery was converted into three rooms for Princess Victoria while she was growing up. Whilst Victoria loved these rooms, the original gallery was restored a century later.

Adjacent to the King’s State Rooms are the Queen’s State Apartments. These are accessed by an elegant oak-panelled stairway, which is deliberately plainer than the King’s staircase, although still rather grand. Little has changed here since Christopher Wren built them in 1690, however, it is believed to be the first staircase of its kind.

The first room in the tour of the Queen’s Apartments is the Queen’s Gallery, which was designed as an airy space for Mary II to enjoy simple pastimes, such as, reading, needlework and, when raining, walking. Both Mary and her cousin William, Stadtholder of the Netherlands, had been living in Europe before they married and came to England to be crowned as joint rulers. Mary brought with her several treasures she had collected while in the Netherlands, including objects that had been brought overseas by the Dutch East India Company from places such as China, India and Japan. Mary used these items to furnish her new apartments.

Examples of Mary’s vast collection still furnish the gallery today. Originally, over 150 pieces were in this room alone, with oriental porcelain and Delft crammed onto every surface. As visitors will see, she even placed items above the doorways.

On the walls hang a number of paintings, including one of her husband William before he was made King of England. Posed wearing full armour, the Dutch artist Willem Wissing (1656-87) painted the Prince of Orange as an archetypal commander, perhaps foreseeing his future as king.

Another painting in the room is of Mary’s mother Anne Hyde (1637-71), the Duchess of York. Anne was the wife of James II and the mother of two future queens of England: Mary and Anne. This portrait may have been painted by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) who Anne sat for on a number of occasions.

In the corner sits a coloured bust of a Moor, an enslaved man, who has been identified as William III’s favourite personal servant. Although Moors were often kept in slavery, the British royals and upper classes were particularly passionate about their exotic artworks and marbles, such as this example carved by John Nost (d.1729).

The Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by day

The Interior of Antwerp Cathedral by day – Peeter Neeffs

The Queen’s Closet also contains a number of artworks and collectable objects, for example, a couple of paintings showing the interior of Antwerp Cathedral in Belgium by Peeter Neeffs the Elder (1578-1656), although these particular pieces were acquired much later by George III.

Mary II used this room when she wished to withdraw from the social world. Years later when her sister was queen, it was in this room that Queen Anne had a huge argument with her childhood friend Sarah Churchill (1660-1744), Duchess of Marlborough, and ended up stripping Sarah of her high-rank and dismissing her from court.

The Queen’s Closet leads into the Dining Room where William and Mary once shared simple private suppers of fish and beer. Mary could also dine alone here but it was too small for more than a couple of guests.

Again, there are a few pieces of art in this room, including a painting of a much-loved housekeeper above the fireplace. This was Katherine Elliot who had been the nurse for James II when he was a child. She later became both the court Dresser and Woman of the Bedchamber for James’ wives and inevitably had some interaction with his children.

“The Queen brought about the custom … of filling houses with China-ware which increased to a strange degree afterwards piling their China upon the tops of Cabinets, Scutores, and every Chymney-Piece to the tops of the Ceilings.”
– Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)

As the author Daniel Defoe rightly commented, Mary II owned a lot of porcelain, which adorns most rooms in the Queen’s apartments. During her lifetime, however, the majority of these ceramics could be found in the Queen’s Drawing Room. Originally panelled, this room was damaged by an incendiary bomb during World War Two, which is why the rooms are now wallpapered.

Although rather sparse in comparison to how it would have looked 300 years ago, the drawing room has a few items of interest, particularly a barometer set in a carved oak and walnut case. Made by Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), the most famous clockmaker in England at the time, the barometer indicates the weather on a silvered and matted gold dial. To the casual observer, the numbers on the dial mean nothing, however, each number is designated a type of weather ranging from Stormy (30) to Settled Fair (270).

The final room in the Queen’s Apartments is the Queen’s Bedroom, although it later became a cosy sociable place where Mary could show off more of her porcelain. The bed which can be found in the bedroom today is thought to be the one in which James Edward Stuart (1688-1766), son of King James II was born, at St James’ Palace, in 1688. How this bed came to be at Kensington Palace is not mentioned.

After visiting both the King and Queen’s rooms, there are still two parts of the palace to explore. One part contains temporary exhibitions where famous paintings, objects and items of clothing, for example, Princess Diana’s (1961-97) wedding dress can be found. Currently, the temporary exhibition is about the life of Queen Victoria, in honour of her two hundredth birthday. Whilst this is a temporary exhibition, the history of Victoria’s life is a permanent feature at the Palace and can be found in the rooms on the first floor.

Victoria was born at Kensington Palace on the 24th May 1819 at 4.15 am. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Kent had only recently arrived at the Palace and their daughter was born in a dining room that had hastily been turned into a bedroom ready for their arrival so that there would be easy access to hot water from the kitchen nearby.

When Alexandrina Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne. Prince Edward (1767-1820), the Duke of Kent was the fourth son of George III and his wife, Victoire (1786-1861) was the widow of Emich Carl (1763-1814), the Prince of Leiningen. Although Victoire had two older children from her previous marriage – Prince Charles (1804-1856) and Princess Feodora (1807-72) – they did not have any claim to the British throne.

The Duke of Kent died after a short illness before Victoria’s first birthday, thus putting his daughter fourth in line to the throne. Victoire, despite speaking mainly German, decided to stay at Kensington Palace and provide her daughter with a royal upbringing.

As a young child, Victoria was happy and lively, playing with hundreds of toys, for example, her beloved dolls house, and being spoilt by everyone around her. She had a vivid imagination and was always making costumes for her dolls, dressing herself up, or inventing stories. As she grew older, she began producing drawings, many of which can be seen at Kensington Palace. Victoria was always dressed as a princess and was given a ring made of gold, emerald and ruby at a tender age.

She was, however, prone to tantrums, which led to her mother’s advisor Sir John Conroy (1786-1854) inventing a set of rules known as the “Kensington System”. These rules required Victoria to behave like a queen in every aspect of her life from diet and exercise to social engagements and religious observance. She was also taught a variety of subjects including the usual drawing and music as well as more masculine lessons, such as arithmetic, history and Latin. Whilst Conroy claimed to have Victoria’s education at heart, some people thought he was trying to control the princess. She was never allowed to be on her own or walk down the stairs without assistance. Nor did she have many friends her own age. Naturally, one of the first things Victoria did as queen was to get rid of the detested Conroy.

It was at Kensington Palace where Princess Victoria met her future husband. For her 17th birthday, her mother invited Victoria’s uncle and cousins to Kensington Palace. It had long been hoped that Victoria would marry her cousin Albert (1819-61), although, the present King William IV (1765-1837) had other ideas. Fortunately, Victoria and Albert fell in love during this visit and the princess wrote in her diary that Albert was “extremely handsome” and that she admired his good-naturedness and intelligence. After becoming queen, Victoria was able to take the initiative and propose to Albert with whom she lived happily until he died from typhoid in 1861.

Royal Collection

The First Council of Queen Victoria by Sir David Wilkie

“I must say, it was quite like a dream.”
– Victoria’s journal, 21st June 1837

On the 20th June 1837 at 6am, less than a month after Victoria had turned 18, she was woken up by her mother with the news that “my poor Uncle, the King, was no more … and consequently that I am Queen.” Her first Council meeting took place on the same morning in the Red Saloon, which is the final room in the tour of the Victoria Rooms. Unfortunately, Victoria had to leave her childhood home and move to Buckingham Palace, never to live at Kensington again.

Since Queen Victoria left Kensington Palace, many royals have moved in and out and a number of children have grown up in the same rooms as their ancestors. Many elderly descendants of Queen Victoria were granted apartments at the Palace, including two of her daughters: Louise (1848-1939) and Beatrice (1857-1944). Louise moved in while her mother was still alive and Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “happy to think one of my daughters shd. live in a part of it.”

Many of Victoria’s grandchildren lived at Kensington at some point, including her last surviving grandchild Princess Alice (1883-1981). Another granddaughter, Victoria Mountbatten (1863-1950), Marchioness of Milford Haven moved in after the death of her husband and often had her grandson Philip come to stay. This is the very same Philip who went on to marry the future Queen Elizabeth in November 1947.

In 1960, the newly married Princess Margaret (1930-2002) and Lord Snowdon (1930-2017) made Kensington Palace their home. Here they raised their children David and Sarah. In 1982, the residents of Kensington Palace welcomed the new Prince and Princess of Wales (Charles and Diana). Both of their sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, grew up here and Diana remained at the palace after her divorce from Prince Charles in 1992, who moved to Clarence House. Both young princes returned to the palace in adulthood and Prince William remains living there with his family today.

Before leaving Kensington Palace, visitors have the opportunity to purchase souvenirs in the gift shop or have a bite to eat in the cafe. There is also a beautiful garden to explore that has been developed over the past three hundred years and includes a sunken garden, orangery and a statue of Queen Victoria. These gardens are available to all visitors and can be explored without having purchased a ticket to enter the palace.

Kensington Palace is a wonderful place to visit and has been the home of many royal children over the past three centuries as well as the home of kings and queens. It is steeped in history but, as a working palace, it has also been brought into the contemporary era. The entry fee is quite expensive but it is a price worth paying. Cheaper tickets can be purchased online for £17.50 (adults) and £8.70 (children), however, they are more expensive if bought directly from the palace.

Exploring​ London the Fun Way

36267457_10214211559874382_7551268224013172736_nSir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most iconic buildings in the City of London. Recognised throughout the world by its impressive dome, tourists flock to stand in front of or even go inside to explore the famous cathedral. Crowds gather in the churchyard to sit and rest or eat picnics on a nice day but how many people take notice of the history around them? St Paul’s may be a huge tourist attraction, however, there is so much more to see hidden within the surrounding streets.

To begin with, there are many things worthy of note in the vicinity of the cathedral. Opposite the steps to St Paul’s stands a plinth with a statue of Queen Anne (1665-1714), the first monarch of Great Britain. As many people are aware, St Paul’s Cathedral burnt down during the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was rebuilt using Wren’s designs soon after. The building was completed during Anne’s reign, therefore, it is for this reason that a statue of the Queen was erected here to commemorate the completion of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1712. What visitors to St Paul’s see today is not the original statue by Francis Bird (1667-1731) but a replica that was put in place in 1886 after the first version started deteriorating.

Surrounding the statue of Queen Anne are four female figures to represent Britannia, France, America and Ireland, four countries that the newly established Great Britain had some control over. The reason for the railings which surround the entire sculpture is supposed to prevent anyone from damaging the statues, something which an Indian sailor managed to do in 1769.

 

By entering the churchyard, a number of other statues can be discovered, most famously the St Paul’s Cross. This is a column mounted with a gilded statue of St Paul to mark the location of the original St Paul’s Cross. The original, however, was not a column but a place for religious gatherings and news reports. It was first used in approximately 1191 and continued to draw a crowd until 1643. During the Reformation, William Tyndale’s (1494-1536) New Testament was burnt by Catholics at the site because it was in English. At other times, many other protests involving public opinion occurred here and it became a place to publicly preach the Christian faith.

On the other side of St Paul’s Churchyard is a bronze statue of John Wesley (1703-91), the theologian, cleric and co-founder of Methodism. Depicted wearing a cassock and holding a Bible, the statue is 5’1″, the exact height Wesley was during his life. Although St Paul’s Cathedral is not a Methodist building, the statue has been placed here to commemorate the changes Wesley brought to the British Christian faith and acknowledges that he used the nearby Chancel of the Cathedral for worship.

 

Whilst it may be tempting to stay and relax in St Paul’s churchyard, there are a number of other small parks to visit nearby. On the opposite side of the road sit Carter Lane Gardens, which were improved and made pedestrian friendly in 2006. Although it may be noisy because it is situated on the carriageway between Godliman Street and New Change, it is full of flower gardens, lawns and seating. It is also the site of the City of London Information Centre where tourists can buy guides or ask for directions.

Close by, at the top of St Peter’s Hill, is the National Firefighters Memorial depicting three bronze fireman in action, wearing the typical uniform of the 1940s. It is a comparatively new statue that was commissioned by the Firefighters Memorial Charitable Trust which was unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1991. Initially, the memorial was for the men and women who lost their lives fighting the fires caused by the Blitz in WWII when the city was attacked by bombs for 57 consecutive nights. Later, it was decided that the memorial would honour all firefighters throughout the UK who had been killed whilst doing their duty. The names of the 1,192 heroes were inscribed on plaques surrounding the monument in September 2003.

 

On the same side of the road as and a mere stone’s throw away from the cathedral is the award-winning Festival Gardens. Created in 1951 by Sir Albert Richardson (1880-1964), the sunken lawns and water feature were established to tidy up the damage caused by the war. It was once the site of Cordwainers Hall, where shoemakers practised their trade as well as a number of other halls at various points in history.

Hidden in the shade of the trees is a recent statue depicting the bust of the poet John Donne (1572-1631) who once lived across the road on Bread Street. It was commissioned by the City of London in memory of Donne’s devotional poems, particularly Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward from which words have been extracted and inscribed below the bust: “Hence is’t, that I am carried towards the West/This day, when my Soul’s form bends to the East”

Famed for his poems and coined phrases, such as “No man is an island” and “For whom the bell tolls”, Donne was also a priest and preacher who worked at St Paul’s during the early 17th century. It is for this reason that the first public memorial to Donne was placed in this location.

Whilst visiting the Festival Gardens, it is worth crossing New Change and entering Watling Street. So narrow that it is almost inaccessible to cars, Watling Street was once an ancient Briton trackway between Canterbury and St. Albans. Later, after the invasion of the Romans, the road was extended as far South as Dover, through London, and all the way to Wroxeter in Shropshire. Today, many parts of Watling Street are still used, however, have been diverted or converted into more car-friendly roads, for instance, the A2 and the A5.

 

Those who visit St Paul’s Cathedral because of their passion for history, art or architecture will be interested in visiting the Guildhall Yard on Gresham Street. The Guildhall has been used as a town hall for hundreds of years and is currently the ceremonial and administrative centre of the City of London. Occasionally, the yard will be out of access due to royal events, however, the majority of the time it is open to the public. The courtyard itself is paved over but has a circular line running across the flagstones, indicating the position of the Roman amphitheatre, which lies beneath the ground.

A section of the Roman amphitheatre can be seen for free via the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery on the righthand side of the courtyard. The art gallery was built in 1885 as a place to contain the art collections from the City of London Corporation. Today, the gallery rotates the 4000-piece strong collection, showing 250 paintings at a time. The majority of these paintings represent London, however, there are some from the Victorian era, including the Pre-Raphaelites.

On the façade of the Guildhall Art Gallery are four busts of well-known Englishmen: Oliver Cromwell, Christopher Wren, William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys. Each of these men contributed significantly to the history of the city and have rightfully been commemorated. Without them, the City of London would not be what it is today.

On the opposite side of the yard is grade 1 listed Baroque church, St Lawrence Jewry, the official church of the Lord Mayor of London. Like St Paul’s Cathedral, this church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). It is believed that before it became a Church of England, St Thomas Moore, the Lord High Chancellor during the reign of Henry VIII, preached on the site.

 

Those who prefer a quieter place to sit and escape the hustle and bustle of the city should head to the Brewers’ Hall Gardens in Aldelmanbury Square. Situated behind Brewers’ Hall, there are a number of benches and flowerbeds, popular with office workers who want a peaceful lunch before heading back inside.

The original Brewers’ Hall was built in 1420, making the Brewers one of the first Guilds to have a Hall of their own. As with many buildings in this area, the Hall also succumbed to the flames in 1666 and was rebuilt in 1673. Unfortunately, the Blitz saw off the second Hall in 1940. The present Hall has been safely in place since 1960, along with the small garden.

In 1971, the gardens became home to a gardener, a life-size bronze statue by Karin Jonzen (1914-98). The male figure is on his knees, touching the ground in front of him as though tending to a plant. Jonzen was commissioned to produce the sculpture as a tribute to all the unseen gardeners around the city who tend to the many parks and green areas.

 

London is full of different memorials, some already mentioned, and there is yet another in a park not too far away from St Paul’s Cathedral. Postman’s Park, the site of the former headquarters of the General Post Office, was opened in 1880 on the original churchyard of St Botolph’s Aldersgate. Since 1900, however, the park has become famous for the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice established by the artist George Frederick Watts (1817-1904) to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.

The memorial commemorates ordinary people who died saving the lives of others who otherwise would have been forgotten. A wall of 54 ceramic tablets with names and dates from 1863 to 2007 state the heroic acts and circumstances of death. Examples include Mary Rogers who gave up her lifebelt on a sinking ship, Alice Ayres who save three children from a burning house at the cost of her own life, and Leigh Pitt who saved a drowning boy from the canal at Thamesmead but drowned himself.

It is difficult to believe that less than a hundred years ago the area around St Paul’s Cathedral was a bomb site, completely pulverized by the enemy during the Blitz. So many buildings were destroyed, it is a wonder that the cathedral remained standing. To the north of St Paul’s is the current location of the London Stock Exchange and an urban development plaza, owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Co. Named Paternoster Square from the Latin pater noster, meaning “our Father”, thus connecting it with the nearby place of worship, it replaces the demolished Paternoster Row, home to the centre of the London publishing trade pre-World War II.

The redevelopment took place during the 1960s and two decades later became popular with many investment banks. The paved square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes, making it the go-to place for many office staff at lunchtime. Yet, like most places in the area, it also houses a couple of monuments.

The most important, unmissable monument in Paternoster Square is the 75 ft (23m) tall Paternoster Square Column. Often confused with the Monument to the Great Fire of London near London Bridge, this column was erected in memory of both the fire of 1666 and the devastation of 1940 in this particular area. Made of Portland stone, it is a Corinthian-style column topped with a gold leaf covered flaming copper urn. Although it looks similar to the age-old monuments around the city, it has a fairly modern usage. The plinth contains ventilation shafts for the car park hidden underneath the square.

On the opposite side of the square is a bronze Paternoster sculpted by Dame Elisabeth Frink (1930-93) in 1975. Also known as the Shepherd and Sheep, it was commissioned by Trafalgar House in memory of Newgate Market, which once stood in Paternoster Row where farmers sold their livestock. Incidentally, Paternoster Square is situated very near to the old site of Newgate Prison, which existed from 1188 until 1902.

Upon the side of one of the office buildings and easily missed by those hurrying by is a sculptural piece of steelwork that functions as a sundial. Rather than telling the exact time, the dial indicates the month of the year as well as the Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter equinoxes. Within each months’ section are 28-31 notches to indicate the day, which the tip of the shadow moves across as the sun rises and sets. There are also small notches that the shadow passes at midday. Erected in 2003, it remains in perfect condition and is an amazing invention.

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Temple Bar

In order to return to St Paul’s from Paternoster Square, people must walk under an ornamental gateway named Temple Bar. It was once the principal ceremonial entrance to the City of London on the western side and is attributed to Sir Christopher Wren. In 2004, the structure was moved and repositioned at the entrance to Paternoster Square. Like the memorial in the middle of the square, Temple Bar is also made from Portland Stone

The number of places, statues and so forth that can be found in the vicinity of St Paul’s, both ancient and modern, is astonishing. Tourists make a beeline for the Cathedral and dismiss everything else as modern offices and unimportant buildings. However, by taking the time to look carefully, a whole wealth of history can be uncovered. Away from the busy roads are small alleyways with interesting establishments and quiet retreats away from the bustling city workers and sightseers.

Personally, I had the chance to discover these historical and urban sites with the aid of a treasure map produced by Treasure Trails. The trail challenges explorers between the ages of 6 and 106 to follow a set of clues to locate where some (fictional) long-lost treasure may be buried. The directions lead to all sorts of places that are often overlooked, such as statues, plaques on buildings, road signs, pubs and so forth. It is a fantastic way of learning more about the city without the need for a local guide or expensive book. At £6.99 per trail, it is a wonderful and enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Whether you explore the city by yourself or opt for the fun-filled treasure trail, there is so much to discover around St Paul’s Cathedral. From historical monuments to more recent developments, there are a number of interesting things to locate and appreciate. Regardless of how you go about exploring, here is a piece of advice: always remember to look up!

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Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!

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St Paul’s Cathedral (Shutterstock/Ratikova)

St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks in London. In photographic and illustrative cityscapes of the capital, St Paul’s is invariably positioned in the centre. The cathedral is so well known, it independently represents England’s famous city.

The beautiful building is admired by thousands of visitors every day, attracting over 250,000 school children per year. For many, to have a photograph taken on the steps of the main entrance is sufficient, however, the interior is something not to be missed.

In order to fully appreciate the magnificence of the architecture and decoration, some knowledge of the cathedral’s history needs to be recognised. Many people know about the destruction of the building during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the current structure is actually the fifth cathedral to have stood on this site.

In 604AD, King Ethelbert of Kent founded the first St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the City of London. At this time, Christianity was still relatively new, therefore the wooden structure was one of the first religious settlements in England. Unfortunately, most likely due to the inadequate building material, it succumbed to fire in 675. Undeterred, the building was re-erected, only to be destroyed by Vikings a few centuries later.

The third version of the church was sensibly built in stone, however, St Paul’s appeared to be ill-fated, suffering another fire in 1087. With the Normans on the throne, those in power were determined to build the tallest church in the world, so construction began on a fourth building. The erection of this unique cathedral took many years followed by an additional 60 to make it even larger.

From 1300 to 1600, St Paul’s Cathedral stood without fatal incident, however, lack of care resulted in a gradual deterioration. Inigo Jones, a notable architect (whose other notable works include the Queen’s House, Greenwich) oversaw the restoration of the decrepit building, but it was doomed from the start with the launch of the English civil war. Plans to continue developing the cathedral were made after the reinstation of the monarchy, with Christopher Wren drawing out the blueprint, unfortunately, the hapless building was to face another demolition. In 1666, before Wren had the opportunity to start building, St Paul’s was completely destroyed by the infamous Great Fire of London.

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London’s burning: an oil painting of the Great Fire of London as seen from Newgate Museum of London.

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was a remarkable man of many talents. Now respected for his architectural skills, he was also an accomplished astronomer and mathematician. In fact, he was a professor of astrology at Gresham College in London and Oxford University. His deep-rooted devotion to Christ, as a result of being a rector’s son, and his allegiance to the royal family during the civil war earned Wren the opportunity to work on the prestigious cathedral.

Wren had already completed several commissions in London, including the palaces at Kensington and Hampton Court, therefore Charles II knew he was a trustworthy architect to take charge of London’s greatest building. With a motto “Architecture aims at eternity,” Wren not only focused on the aesthetic appeal but took into consideration the longevity of the construction.

By 1675, Sir Christopher Wren was ready to begin building work. The floor plan was set out to resemble a Latin cross – an indicator of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and the building was to be topped with a dome, mainly to satisfy Wren’s desire.

Initially, Charles II and other influential individuals were set on having a spire atop the cathedral, but due to Wren’s persistence, the famous dome was assembled instead, thus unintentionally creating one of St Paul’s Cathedral’s famous interior marvels: the Whispering Gallery.

The Whispering Gallery, located 30 metres above the cathedral floor, got its name as a result of an architectural fluke affecting the acoustics in the dome. A whisper against the wall on one side of the gallery can purportedly be heard at the opposite wall. Unfortunately, the number of visitors in the gallery makes it impossible to fully test this theory. If the 257-stepped spiral staircase was not too much for you, it is possible to climb even higher. Above the Whispering Gallery at 52 metres and 85 metres from the ground are the Stone Gallery and the Golden Gallery. These both run around the outside of the dome, providing fantastic, panoramic views across London.

Although the unique acoustic trait may fail to occur, it is still worth the long climb up to the Whispering Gallery. From the balcony, you can peer down at the floor of the cathedral where the main church services are conducted. Depending on which side of the dome you stand, it is also possible to see a bird’s eye view of the nave, north transept and south transept.

The most awe-inspiring sight from the Whispering Gallery is not the view below but the closer view of the painted ceiling of the dome. This, of course, can be seen from the ground, however, the intricate details can be better appreciated from this higher vantage point. Surrounding the entire dome, and made to look three dimensional with the inclusion of painted pillars, are murals to represent the life of Saint Paul.

There is evidence to suggest that Christopher Wren wished the entire ceiling to be made up of mosaics, but, most likely due to costs, Sir James Thornhill (1675/5-1743) was commissioned to provide monochrome paintings instead. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of two famous ceilings that Thornhill was responsible for, the other being the ceiling of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Thornhill did not paint alone, instead, he supplied detailed pen-and-ink sketches for other painters to replicate. A total of eight scenes completes the experience of Saint Paul as written in the fifth book of the New Testament: the Book of Acts. A particularly memorable painting is based on an incident accounted in Acts 27 in which Paul has been shipwrecked on the island of Malta. The artist has depicted Saint Paul holding a poisonous snake, which ought to have killed him. His survival convinced the island inhabitants of the existence of God.

Although Wren did not get his wish for the entire dome to be decked in mosaics, the triangular spaces below Thornhill’s work caused by the structure of the dome’s arches, have been filled with the coloured mosaics. Designed by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) and George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), these portray four Old Testament prophets (Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah) and the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Again, these can be seen from the cathedral floor, or from a closer perspective in the Whispering Gallery.

It is only natural for a cathedral to be filled with biblical paintings and objects, however, St Paul’s is also famous for a number of burials. The crypt, which can be entered via stairs by the north transept, is home to many graves and statues that honour individuals of significant reputation. The two most popular are the tombs of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson earned his spot in St Paul’s crypt after being killed in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. Despite his demise, Nelson prevented an invasion of Britain by Napoleon and his army. Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, is also a national hero and deserves his granite casket under the cathedral. His army successfully defeated Napoleon at the famous Battle of Waterloo.

A third important thing to locate (no, not the cafe – although do visit that as well) is Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb. This is slightly more difficult to find in comparison to the elaborate memorials of the war heroes. In the south aisle of the Chapel of Faith, set in the Cathedral’s foundations, is a simple stone slab. Initially, this may appear an insult to the great architect and individual responsible for the construction of the long-lasting building, however, written in Latin above his tomb is the epitaph “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” Wren does not need an effigy or ornate tombstone, he is buried in the undercroft of his very own creation.

Other notable memorials around the crypt are for artists and scientists who contributed greatly to society through their work. These include J. M. W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds, William Blake, Randolph Caldecott, Sir Alexander Fleming and Florence Nightingale. The latter is one of the very few women to be honoured in such a way at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Memorials in the form of statues can also be found inside the main body of the cathedral.   Carved by various sculptors from a variety of stone, an abundance of well-known names and likenesses can be spotted from all corners of the building. Lord Leighton, Lord Kitchener, Samuel Johnson and John Donne are a few examples. In the grounds outside, a gilded statue of Saint Paul and a stone Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the completion of the Cathedral, are located.

St Paul’s Cathedral is also home to other artworks, excluding the memorial tombs and statues. The ceilings themselves are an exceptional feat, decorated with complicated mosaics. These were added from 1896 in order to appease Queen Victoria, who believed that cathedral looked dull and shabby.

Other works to look out for include Mother and Child by Henry Moore and The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt – the altarpiece in the Chapel of Saints Erkenwald and Ethelburga, as well as temporary exhibitions: the Commemorative Crosses by Gerry Judah – in memoriam of the First World War, Tides by Pablo Genovés and Martyrs by Bill Viola.

Of course, everything else in the cathedral is beautiful enough to be recognised as art. From altars and gates to the stone flooring, everything can be appreciated. The current organ is also a sight to cherish. Being the third largest in the United Kingdom, it has 7256 pipes and is decorated with elaborate carvings. Apparently, even the original organ was something special, being the first in Britain to have pedals. The composer, George Frederick Handel, got great pleasure from playing this instrument.

St Paul’s Cathedral is as magnificent as it was when completed in 1711, only 36 years after work began. It has been the location of many ceremonies, particularly the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981. It has also been a place of celebration for the jubilees of both of Britain’s longest reigning queens.

Thanks to Sir Christopher Wren’s durable architecture, St Paul’s Cathedral will hopefully remain standing for centuries to come. Thousands of services can be predicted to take place during the following years, but why wait to experience the amazing building? As long as you are willing to pay the fee, St Paul’s Cathedral is ready to welcome you and reveal its true beauty.