Monday, 30 August 2010

On top of the world

Today I got to fulfill another one of my life's ambitions by visiting the Whispering Gallery at St Paul's Cathedral. I can't believe I've lived in London for over fifteen years without stepping foot in that magical place.

I've been on a day out with my very dear friend, Edward, and rather than making a dash for the nearest bit of countryside, we decided we'd have a look at what London had to offer.

As we walked along the South Bank it became very apparent that there weren't many other Londoners on the tourist trail. Most city dwellers had, no doubt, taken advantage of the sunshine and cleared off to Southend On Sea to watch the baptisms!

We popped into the turbine hall at the Tate Modern to see what was going on and were hugely disappointed to discover that there wasn't an awe-inspiring, enormous work of art hanging-out there. Instead they seemed to be running ballet classes, tucked away in one corner of the enormous space, which felt way too self-conscious to be some kind of installation that I didn't understand!

It was whilst we were having a pub lunch that the idea of visiting the cathedral came to us; both of us confessing that we'd never visited it before.

The initial impact of the place is breathtaking. It's fabulously gaudy and terribly high! Standing underneath the giant dome whilst looking up at rows and rows of balconies and frescos, is so awe-inspiring it actually gave me vertigo!

We decided to climb the 500 or so steps to the very top of the building. It's the human condition to want to be as high as possible even if the view is a bit rubbish and the climb is tiring or dangerous.

The Whispering Gallery is the first of three levels and is far grander than I'd imagined. Looking up it's still many, many metres to the top of the dome and the circumference is very large at this point. We did what we were meant to do and took up positions against the walls opposite each other with perhaps twenty meters of empty space between us. I cupped my hand against the wall and whispered Edward's name, and then put my ear to the wall and listened. It took a moment, but then I heard something magical. "Benjamin Till." I heard my name. It was faint above the sound of the cathedral organ, but very definitely there. It was disembodied and extremely eerie; the sort of sound you might expect would wake you up from a nightmare and make you sit bolt-upright in bed in a cold sweat! It was terrifying, yet wonderful and deeply mystifying. We were both thrilled. What on earth causes this phenomenon? I vowed to return at the start of a day when there weren't any other sounds to get in the way.

From the Whispering Gallery, we climbed upwards to the Stone Gallery and then to the Golden Gallery, where we were able to look down at the cathedral floor from a ball-tingling height! But I suppose it was the view of London from the viewing platform outside of the building that properly took our breath away. You could see for miles. Highgate was particularly clear on the horizon, as was Crystal Palace in the south. We stood for some time, looking down on the scores of roof terraces and urban gardens in the City which are completely invisible from street level. Very exciting, in a way, just to know they exist and interesting to wonder who is allowed to use them and whether they know just how lucky they are!

Before I talk about what Pepys was up to, I feel obliged to bring your collective attention to this:

This single, by The Unconventionals, is out now on i-tunes, and was made by a group of my friends. It is guaranteed to cheer you up, and only costs 79p.  Buy it. I dare you!

Pepys woke up on this date 350 years ago to discover that all was well within his house and that his troublesome boy hadn't spent the night destroying the joint. In fact, quite the opposite, he seemed utterly destoyed and very apologetic, but Pepys was unimpressed, claiming he was "the most cunning rogue that ever I met with of his age."

Pepys headed for Westminster and dined with a lawyer at Heaven, which was a bar-cum-restaurant within the complex of Westminster Hall. Apparently there were other bars in the vicinity called Hell and Purgatory!

Elizabeth, meanwhile, went off to the christening of Mr Pierce, the surgeon's child. At the last moment, they asked her to be a god-mother, but Pepys stepped in and urged her to decline; it's not clear why. Pepys noted that today was the first time his wife had worn black patches on her face; a European tradition, which made its way to this country following the Restoration, and made an incredibly good cover-up for any pock-marks created by small pox.

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