When last we saw Travel Monday, we were just about to start an strongly-warned-against journey to the top of St. Pauls’ Cathedral in London…
Whenever I think I might be getting ahead of myself, I like to look around at who’s with me. “Who’s With ME!?” I will shout. Quietly. Looking at the dainty elderly women, the middle-aged couples with expensive cameras, the lean architecture buffs, and, yes, the zaftig Americans and Brits-not-from-London, I figured I like my odds. Statistically speaking, I should make this climb within the comfortable parameters of one standard deviation from the mean. In layman’s terms: I will not be last, pitied and humiliated, wheezing and prone on the ground.
Up we go! First there’s a super fun spiral staircase, with very short risers. As you surely know what a spiral staircase looks like, the only feature of note was how wide it was – about 10 feet from pin to wall. An etiquette like no other evolves in this very unique public space. Older, infirm, or slow people get the widest part. (To the far right) This means the “passing lanes” occupy the slightly more standard-width middle sections. And what of the people descending? Well, they are screwed: engaged in a constant game of Stair-Chicken with the Passing Lane crowd, they are often driven to the inner regions where each step is about 4 inches wide. At which point, they have to stop. And wait. Balanced precariously on a pigeon perch. I make a mental note of this… Perhaps, I think to myself, the actually scary part is the way DOWN. And I try to buy as much Karma as I can by not being the total DICK who would do that to people. I stay to the right except when I have reasonable space to pass the Grannies. I pass the time by eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.
Infidelity – after the new patio?! Fool! Lingering to hear the answer is a dead giveaway, I have learned (the hard way) so I veer into the passing lane and end up behind… other Americans.
“These steps are so short! It’s dangerous – some one could fall the whole way down!”
“Yes, well, you know, people were so much smaller then.”
Um, in roughly 1987, when it looks like this staircase was built? They must have been Polly-Pocket-sized during the first great civilizations on the Tigris and Euphrates. How cute! But I do not say so. I have veered and passed and climbed all the way up to the top of the spiral, where I discover… an elevator. If you only want to check out the Whispering Gallery, you can take the elevator. Knowing the Grannies did not. Live with that.
The Whispering Gallery is like a Whispering Well… but with a church under it. It seems I have come to the right place to eavesdrop. Two Koreans and I amuse ourselves murmuring nonsense (and show tunes!) to each other from opposite ends, 259 steps up from the floor and maybe 60 feet across. I can hear them rustling their clothing more clearly than I can hear people next to me. Which would be why they call it the Whispering Gallery. I venture on.
But discover, now that the newish, rebuilt part of the staircase is over, I will be treated to covering the next 119 steps in the old, stone, perhaps slightly claustrophobic tunnels of stairs to the aptly named Stone Gallery. I see that this is where the Weak turn back. We are separating the wheat from the chaff now! I, who have wiggled to the rooftops of Oxford through coffin-esque stone passages that reduced grown men to quivering blubberers; I, who have crawled through recently-made holes in the plaster of Victorian houses being rehabbed merely to report on the size of the unused space; I, who have – you get the idea. I can handle these stairs. And I do. This part goes very fast, and soon I’m looking out over London, which is surprisingly noisy from that height – despite its disappointing lack of singing, dancing chimney sweeps. (No. I will never stop hoping!)
So, uh – just one more part to go, and I’m at the top! The Golden Gallery. Oh, that sounds nice. Do dee do – I hum and skip to the next stair entrance.
Which is, um, different. Have we discussed the Cone Dome yet? See, what it means is – that Chris, he’s so smart! – you have an inner cone, which looks all dome-y from the floor of the church, encased in an outer dome, which looks all dome-y from outside. (Because it is A Dome.) AND it doesn’t have to support all the weight, or look funny. How does he come up with this
shi – these ingenious thingies?
And then, obviously, you put the stairs to the top in that little half-round, half-angled-out space between them. How thoughtful! Enjoy your climb to the top even in inclement weather! Oh, Chris! Except… now that I’m a few feet up here… wow- that slants away FAST, huh? And I can see all the way down… You know what? Not a big deal. I won’t look down there again until I’m at the top – you know – delay that until I can get the Full Effect. Oh, but look – the stairs are just… a rickety metal grid. A rickety, narrow, steep metal grid I can see right through. Okay. I just won’t look down. Wow – this roof angles in fast, huh?! It’s like rightovermyhead now. Oh Boy! This is… great. But how am I going to make sure my foot is in the very center of this rickety narrow see-through metal grid step of death if I don’t look down? Hmmm? Didn’t think of that, did you, Chris?
Hands sweating. Breath – not so good with the breathing right now. Is it the altitude? Don’t be stupid. Your hotel is taller! Well – what gives? I’m starting to shake more and more – and the more I shake, the harder it is for my sweaty hands to hold on to this… pitiful, really… inadequate…ohdearGodWOBBLY! It wobbles! This railing is going to come right out of the wall! Why won’t you FIX THIS???
Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. I’m having a heart attack. No, maybe this is a stroke. No, maybe this is what they mean by a religious experience, because right now all I can say is “Oh My God” and all I can do is put one foot on a new step roughly once every ten minutes. Why is everyone else okay? Wheat from the chaff, my ass. I should’ve stayed with the fatties on the Stone Gallery. Oh, fatties. Fatties I miss you!
Nimble little monkeys are passing me at what seems like death-defying speed. And then… I am alone. Alone in the Cone. For what seems like forever. Only the sound of my lungs struggling against the constriction in my chest, a constriction born of unreasonable, irrational fear. I try telling myself “even if I did fall…” but find that my eyes are filling with black spots. Oh, wow. Am I going to faint? This is really bad timing to choose that as a hobby!
And then I hear them – a middle aged American couple climbing behind me. He is reassuring and calm. She looks maternal and so very comforting, but her eyes are squeezed shut and she keeps making little “oooh” sounds just like Olive Oil – thought that makes me giggle. They stop next to me on the landing (the steps, or glorified ladder, I should mention, curve around the inside of the dome and around the cone like an even bigger spiral as they spiral back and forth… so you get landings about every quarter turn around the structure) and she opens her eyes. Looks at me. Looks absolutely horrified. Grabs my hand. Introduces both she and her husband. And proceed to talk me up the rest of the way – nevermind that she was afraid, too – they… well, they pretty much adopted me on the spot.
Up top, with the Golden Gallery circling around, a tiny peephole looks down from the very top center of the dome to the floor of the church 85 metres down. People were leaning over it to take pictures. I very weakly took a blurry picture of a woman three times my age happily snapping at what I now considered a view too frightening to risk. She did not seem out of breath. My new adopted family and I make a lap of the Golden Gallery together – just one, and both Borrowed Mom and I are gouging holes in the ancient stone with our fingernails the entire time. But I have done it! Sorta.
Exhausted and chastened, disgusted by myself, I started the hideous climb down… which actually turned out to be much easier and faster. Why? WHY?? Having never felt that afraid of heights before, I just don’t know what the deal is. But coming down felt better and better.
After all that, I ran to the crypt to be as far away from anything high as possible. The Order of the British Empire chapel is down there, as well as Allanbrooke’s grave, and Churchill’s gates… all testaments to bravery and holding to your principals no matter what the cost and so forth. I glumly ate a sandwich. I am not made of it, whatever it is. I am made of cowardice and scorn. I am awful. I’m afraid of steps. Steps!
I sat on the floor of their 360° cinema, surrounded by schoolchildren, and watched a movie about St Paul’s during the Blitz. In a single night, a volunteer army had put out the fires of Nazi bombs (on the same staircase I found impossible to climb, Nazi-bomb-free) over 60 times. They did this many more nights during the Battle of Britain. The film crew interviewed the people who’d put the fires out. I went to the gift shop.
“Have you enjoyed St. Paul’s?” asked the man at the counter. I loved it! Right up until the top of it, I added. Then I turned into a big scaredy cat. “Oh,” he said. “I’ve never been up there. Too high!” he said. I smiled. And deep inside, thought: you coward.