If you’re thinking of moving here and not yet in the hardcore logistics phase when everything that is preoccupying you about the city is where to rent a flat, how to move your belongings here, where to work or go to school, etc., etc., then you’re hopefully in the delightful honeymoon stage of dreaming…thinking of all things Britain that meet your fancy—the cultural scene, the history, the jaw-dropping architecture. Well, the following is a little factoid that may appeal to at least the latter two interests.
Yes, I’ve been back reading my London’s Strangest Tales book again. Can you blame me? It’s fascinating! And so utterly random…this is stuff you definitely don’t hear on the London city tours, well, not most of it anyway. At any rate, when visit or move here, an inevitable walk you must take is along the River Thames in the city’s center. As you walk along London’s Southbank, the striking component of its Northbank view (indeed, a site that has dominated the skyline for centuries) is one of my favorites, St. Paul’s Cathedral. If you haven’t seen it in ‘person’ yet, surely you can remember its front steps as where the sweet old bird lady fed the birds in Mary Poppins? 🙂
(as a little literacy lesson for you, “tuppence” was Victorian/Edwardian English slang for “two pence”)
This soft little ditty floats to my inner ear whenever I’m cutting through the bustle of the financial district and trying to quiet the noise from my mind to admire this magnificent structure. It simply cannot be overrated, nor should it be taken for granted. As my book relates, the Blitzkrieg of London between 1940 and 1941 devastated so much of the city’s historical structures, and you can be certain that St. Paul’s made an ideal target.
How did it survive? I don’t think anyone really knows, though I know what I’d like to believe.
Homes, offices, and shops like the historical Paternoster Row booksellers were obliterated in Paul’s immediate surroundings. Just behind the Bank of America Merrill Lynch Financial Centre still stands the ruins of a smaller church that was bombed out by a missile surely aimed for Wren’s grand cathedral (though the stone shell of it remains, the interior has been converted into a peaceful garden where you can sit and gaze to the sky through what would have once been the roof).
This all I’d known, but what I didn’t realize is that a bomb did fall frighteningly close to St. Paul’s on September 12th, 1940 and surely would have brought the cathedral to the ground…had it not failed to detonate. Embedded deeply in the ground, right up against the foundations of the southwest tower, the bomb required three days of caaarrreful excavation to remove it intact. It was afterwards transported slooowwwly to Hackney Marshes where it was more safely set off, leaving a crater of over 100 feet wide.
As I dwell in my Victorian era terraced house, it is difficult to imagine the air-raid sirens and utter terror its WWII residents must have felt. When I take the Tube, I rarely picture the Underground as a bunker protecting masses of the huddled and fearful. Tourists taking the Jack the Ripper tour will complain about how so few of the buildings from that era still exist on the blocks they visit in East London, likely not giving thought as to why they no longer exist. It’s challenging to believe without seeing sometimes, and perhaps some things are best left forgotten. But you know what they say about history being doomed to be repeated, so I say do what you can to remember it. Remember that St. Paul’s is a miracle next time you notice its dome watching over you; view the church nearby that was not so lucky; inspect the sphinxes guarding over Cleopatra’s Needle on the north Thames walk and poke your fingers through the holes penetrated in the bronze by shrapnel; notice the damage dotted along the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s exterior walls. Take it even further and not only look at but walk inside the Churchill War Rooms, where Churchill and his cabinet strategized as the bombs flew overhead.
When you move to England, its past will become a very real part of your present.