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Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.

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Directly across the river from the Bankside Tate annexe is a broad flight of steps, Peter's Hill, leading up to Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral. Sung Eucharist 1700 at St Paul's does not mean 1700 AD, it means 17.00 hours, but if I had realized that I would have missed it. The Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, is practising as I arrive.

Looking up at Wren's great dome you realize that you are actually looking through it - or them. You are looking through a dome to a further dome - from sphere to sphere. We nearly didn't have this dome. After the Great Fire of London in 1666 rebuilding was forbidden until landowners had cleared the roadway in front of their properties and established a legal claim to the land. Which was very sensible when you come to think about it. It also meant that there was time for a committee to be set up to consider a rebuilding strategy.

St Paul's was in the process of rebuilding before the fire, originally under the direction of Inigo Jones, but work had ceased during the Civil War and by the time Wren's plans for completing the restoration work were accepted, just six days before fire broke out, the nave was a thoroughfare and the porch was a market-place where pedlars and seamstresses traded and so did prostitutes. Pepys regularly picked up women here.

But the plague was extinguished along with the fire, the slums had been razed and here was a heaven-sent opportunity to plan a truly beautiful city. John Evelyn submitted a plan on Italianate lines with trees, wide streets, piazzas and a riverside quay reminiscent, perhaps, of Venice. Christopher Wren envisaged turning the River Fleet into a canal and building a scheme of streets radiating from the central point of a new St Paul's Cathedral. Both wanted the city to be gracious, elegant and timeless with noisy and smelly trades relocated on the outskirts. It was a nice thought, but the consensus was that London was a commercial city and that it should be business as usual.

The rebuilding of the cathedral, though, offered a clean slate for Wren, with the opportunity for an entirely new design: English Baroque. His first plan was rejected because - well, because churches had to be cruciform and they had to have a steeple - but when his third design was accepted Wren showed incredible acuity. Aware that, as building progressed, economies would be insisted upon, he began building not in the usual way from east to west, (which is why cathedrals take centuries to reach completion), but to build upwards, stage by stage, from the ground. It was a sensible precaution and building proceeded uninterruptedly. It took over thirty years, but it didn't stop. Of course the authorities did insist on economies - in fact, after twenty years they halved his salary - but Wren was content.

He did not stick to the agreed plan. As work progressed he shortened the nave and modified into circular form the meeting between nave and transepts. Then, of course, a dome rather than a steeple was the only way to crown it. And if any doubt remained in those fervent traditionalist bosoms it was surely dispelled when he asked for a stone from the rubble to mark the centre point of the dome. The stone he was handed read `Resurgam': I will rise again.

During the building of St Paul's, although he was engaged on the building of probably fifty other churches, Wren visited the site at least once a week to check on the progress. He lived across the Thames, at Cardinal's Wharf, next to the reconstructed version of Shakespeare's Globe. He was an old man by the time St Paul's was finished and his was one of the first burials in the crypt. On the pavement under the dome is his epitaph: `Beneath lies buried the founder of this church and city Christopher Wren... if you seek his monument, look around you.'

I had been expecting to hear William Byrd, and the Sanctus, by William Albright, feels less like music than a - well, a sound. But what a glorious sound! Rather like a great celestial rabble. The hymn they had been practising when I arrived turns out to be called `Tis good, Lord, to be here!' And I'm glad I came, too.

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.

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