Ever since visiting the Fire! Fire! exhibition at the Museum of London last year, my five year old son has been keen to visit St Paul’s Cathedral which was destroyed during the 1666 Great Fire of London. My birthday falls during half term so I decided a trip to London (we live in Hertfordshire) with the kids and my folks would be a great way to spend it.
Rebuilt in just 32 years and designed by Sir Christopher Wren, St. Paul’s Cathedral is so much more than a religious edifice; it is a great vehicle for educating children with its colourful history, famous entombed residents and the fantastic views from its dome. It also has the obligatory cafe (in the crypt) and a pretty good gift shop.
We arrived at 11am and headed straight up to the Whispering Gallery while energy levels were still sufficiently high. My sons are five and two with fairly short little legs but we made it up with only a brief pause to look out of a tiny window at the retreating churchyard below. The steps to the Whispering Gallery are modern and easy to climb, wide and not steep so although there are 257 it is a pretty easy climb.
Once at the Gallery, visitors get a great view on to the nave below. Photography isn’t allowed in the Gallery but this rule seemed to be pretty tricky to enforce by the two cathedral employees as most people had a camera phone glued to their fist. The Whispering Gallery is so-called due to the impressive acoustics which allow even the faintest sounds to travel from one side of the Gallery to the other. It was a fun concept to explore with my five year old but was it was lost on my two year old who preferred to shout at the top of his voice whilst doing circuits of the Gallery, we concluded that sound certainly does travel very effectively up there.
My five year old and I headed up another 119 steps (this time much older and steeper) to reach the Stone Gallery whilst my mum retreated back to ground level with my younger son. The Stone Gallery is outside and on the day of our visit it was a pretty clear and mild day so we were able to see the London Eye and the edge of the Houses of Parliament as well as St Pancras station and Tower Bridge as well as more prominent landmarks such as the Shard and the Gherkin.
The final climb of 152 steps up to the Golden Gallery was a bit of a trek and involved steeper metal stairs which did seem to go on and on. We were both a little weary when we made it to the top but it felt like a great adventure and the views were definitely worth it.
After all the climbing we nipped over to a nearby Pizza Express for a quick pitstop before heading back inside to explore some of the other highlights of the cathedral. My son is learning the history of nurses at school so we found the memorial dedicated to Florence Nightingale in the crypt and then found the tombs of Nelson and Wellington which prompted a brief discussion about the different roles of sailors and soldiers in war.
Whilst we were doing our climb, my father took a free guided tour and afterwards he managed to convince some officials to let us into the Chapel of St Michael and St George which Queen Elizabeth usually worships in when she’s visiting. Much of the floor is inlaid with coats of arms which my son enjoyed studying with his grandfather.
We spent a bit more time wandering around the cathedral, there’s an excellent Fire of London family trail which includes information on sculptures which survived the fire for kids to find and there are models of the two cathedrals pre and post the fire to compare. We also went to look at the high altar where a bomb struck during World War Two. I have come to discover that fires, bombs and general destruction are a great way to engage small children with history.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is the second largest church in the UK after Liverpool Cathedral so there’s quite a bit to take in. There were plenty of areas of the cathedral which we didn’t have a chance to explore, it’s a place to return to as children grow and their interests develop.
Cost: this isn’t a cheap day out at £18 per adult (£16 if booked in advance online) and £8 for kids aged 6+. However, if you’re visiting to worship there is no charge. Here is the reason the charge is so steep.
Buggy and disabled access: there is step free access through the south entrance in the churchyard. My father uses a mobility frame so we were given a special key to a lift for him to access the various floors (visitors cannot gain access to the upper floors via this lift unfortunately).
Opening hours for sightseeing: Monday-Saturday 8:30am-4:30pm