The City & the Northern Girl #8

St. Paul’s Survives

I’ll be honest. As much as I am a dedicated English literature student, who loves nothing more than analysing her fair share of Shakespeare, from time to time I cheat on poor unsuspecting William with my one other love. History. I am a self-confessed history geek. Gritty world wars, prim and proper Victorians, serial husband Henry VIII: you name it, I’ve studied it.

So it’s probably no surprise to you that one of the things that most attracted me to come and study in London, as opposed to my nearer, equally as good Northern universities such as Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, was London’s heritage, along with its charm, its history and its culture. I love it. For me however, the symbol of London isn’t Tower Bridge or Big Ben or the London Eye. Or even Buckingham Palace. It is the majestic figure that is St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It’s bloody beautiful for a start.  Designed by a bloke called Christopher Wren back in 1669, following the original building being destroyed by the Great Fire of London, it dominates London’s skyline as, and I quote directly from the cathedral’s website here, “a symbol of hope, resilience and strength for the City of London”. Not being a particularly religious girl myself, it amazes me how it still has the power to instil goose-bumps just by admiring its magnificent architecture or exploring what lies beyond the Mary Poppins-famous front steps.

It holds an important place in the national identity of England – you’ve probably seen it dominating the tacky postcards in the local tourist shops, along with the standard Will & Kate montage. But what St Paul’s represented for thousands of Londoners during the Blitz of World War II – I warned you I was going to go all historian on you this week – is possibly key in telling us the significance of the cathedral on the city as a whole.

This famous picture labelled ‘St Paul’s survives’, taken by Herbert Mason on 29th December 1940, sums it up perfectly:

This is one of my favourite pictures ever. How much patriotism can you squeeze into one image? It is simply the definition of all the words we associate St Paul’s with: hope, resilience and strength. Taken at the height of the air raids, it shows the cathedral standing tall, amidst the chaos and destruction of war, lit up by the surrounding flames whilst it stubbornly demonstrates its resilience. Despite 120 tons of explosives and 22,000 incendiaries falling onto London that night, during Germany’s 125th attack since the campaign began, St Paul’s incredibly managed to survive and continued to do so right through till the end of the war in 1945.

One quote from Dorothy Barton, an office worker from London who witnessed that night’s terrible bombing, sums it up: “I felt a lump in my throat because, like so many other people, I felt that while St Paul’s survived, so would we”. London’s morality was dependant on this one shining beacon of hope. You’ve all seen St Paul’s – white, pale, the tallest building of that time. How the German’s missed it is a miracle, and many people, me included, believe that God himself played a part in this. How else can you explain it?

Due to this, St Paul’s still stands today. Still proving itself to be that resilient symbol of hope and strength in London. It’s my favourite place in the city, and one of the many reasons I’m glad I choose to study in the Big Smoke. Not many students can say they are lucky enough to be completely surrounded by history. Go and see for yourself.

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