London calling: to St Paul’s

St Paul’s dome

It was an odd feeling, stepping onto a London train for the first time in 19 months. This was my life for many years, yet old habits ended when the pandemic gripped Britain in March 2020.

We were heading into London for Merchant Taylors’ School’s triennial service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Our son Owen is in the Merchant Taylors’ choir and chamber choir, so we were lucky enough to be given seats under the dome. It was very moving to hear the voices from so many traditions and cultures resonating in this historic cathedral.

The choir at St Paul’s. Photo: Merchant Taylors’ School

The service reflects Merchant Taylors’ School’s heritage. It was formed by the Merchant Taylors’ Company, one of the City of London’s 12 historic livery companies. The school moved out of the City of London to Northwood between the two world wars but still cherishes its City roots.

St Paul’s Covid memorial

This triennial service should have been held a year ago but was delayed, like so many events, by the Covid pandemic. It was moving to see the cathedral’s memorial to those who lost their lives in the greatest healthcare crisis in a century.

After the service, I told Owen the remarkable story of how St Paul’s survived the Blitz during the second world war. I dug out a book I bought over 30 years ago: London Before the Blitz, by Richard Trench. The author described the cathedral as a fireman’s nightmare. There are actually two domes: inner and outer structures. The fear was a fire in the gap between the two, which could spread undetected until the whole structure collapsed.

St Paul’s survives the Blitz. Photo: Herbert Mason, IWM

The fear almost came true on the terrible night of 29 December 1940. The Germans planned their aerial assault with brutal efficiency. It was the greatest bombing raid ever at that time. In the lull between Christmas and new year, the City was empty of people. There was a very low tide to impede fire fighting efforts.

At 6.40pm the call went out: St Paul’s dome was on fire. An incendiary bomb had pierced the lead covering the outer dome. It looked like Wren’s masterpiece was ablaze. American broadcaster Ed Murrow told the world that ‘The church that means most to Londoners is gone. St Paul’s cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren, her great dome towering over the capital of the Empire, is burning to the ground as I talk to you now’. Happily, as he broadcast the incendiary burnt through the timbers and fell onto the floor of the great church where it fizzled out. Herbert Mason’s iconic photo caught St Paul’s in its moment of crisis. Richard Trench’s book graphically illustrates how miraculous the survival of St Paul’s was: almost the whole of the City around the cathedral was in ruins.

Merchant Taylors’ pupils and staff at St Paul’s

After the moving service, we headed back to Marylebone, following our old footsteps along Wigmore Street and Marylebone Lane, popping briefly into Daunt Books, the most beautiful bookshop in London.

Rush hour, 2021

We took our seats on the 1724 from London Marylebone to Gerrards Cross. The train was earily quiet for a rush hour – even on a Friday. I reflected that I’d once have struggled to reach for my bag from the overhead rack amidst the rush hour passengers. It made a much more enjoyable trip, but I do fear for the economics of rail travel when the climate crisis should be making railways the obvious means of transport into our great cities.

We relished our return to London. We shall be back.

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