550 steps up, and back down again, and a chance to see a part of St Paul’s Cathedral not usually seen by visitors.

As mentioned the other day, St Paul’s Cathedral is usually closed to paying tourists on Sundays, but for the month of May, they are letting people climb the Dome and take in the astonishing views it offers.

Equally though, the Sunday tour includes two things not usually seen by mid-week visitors.

Entry is not through the main entrance, but by a side door, and only a modest queue was waiting to go up — with one couple arguing about whether they wanted to pay or go elsewhere.

The first of the not-seen-usually items is that the side entrance is a full 22 steps below the level of the Cathedral inside, so Sunday climb is ever so slightly longer than usual. Up some stone steps, and within a few moments, you are onto the main spiral staircase, the barrier being marked by the transition from untouched stone to wooden topped steps.

And now for a long, ever so long walk around and around, slowly heading up to the Whispering Gallery. This mighty attraction overlooks the parishioners below, so on Sunday’s the door to that space remains locked, and here is the unexpected treat.

Diverted from the gilt interior down a very narrow corridor, and a chance to walk around the dome in a hidden corridor that runs between the public gallery and the outside wall — a space covered in ancient graffiti, and rarely seen by the public.

Seemingly never ending curved walkway with warnings to mind the head as the dome looms up overhead.


But eventually, you’re at the Stone Gallery, a comfortably wide corridor with high stone walls that runs around the outside, offering views through the gaps at the city below.


You’ve done the comfortable climb, the easy climb, the accessible climb, all polished wood and clean lines.


Time to earn your lunch (or maybe, lose it), and head to the very top. And this is vertigo central.

For some people, they will never understand why anyone is scared of heights. Others, a step ladder is too much. I fit firmly into the middle, and while the brain says this is fine, the heart at times jumps alarmingly.

A series of tall Victorian spiral stair cases lead inexorable upwards, and if you look down, a growing void in the space between the inner and outer domes.

Climbing up in this space is only possible thanks to a trick by Christopher Wren — as the dome seen from inside the Cathedral is smaller than the dome seen outside, they are in fact two separate structures, and we are climbing up in the space between them.


A final squeeze through a tiny staircase — without handrails — and you are standing right on top of the inner  dome, and if you want, you can peer down to the floor below through a small porthole.

Although if you think about it, you’re standing on a thin metal trapdoor that is hundreds of feet above the stony floor below. Maybe don’t linger, or dwell on that thought, for one more final staircase awaits, and the reward for all that effort.


The Golden Gallery is not at all golden, but a very narrow stone walkway around the highest accessible spot on the dome.

Everyone wants a selfie right by the doorway, causing staff to keep asking people to move along, and everyone wants that perfect photo looking down on the main nave of the Cathedral below.

Squeeze past the lingering couples to get around the stone wall for the journey down still has to be undertaken.


A slightly scary narrow stone staircase down and pass a wooden door with a window in it — hang on, I was on the other side of that 10 minutes ago.

And down another set of Victorian spiral staircases. Narrow winding steps with only one handrail. Everywhere you look, there are locked doorways alluding to more hidden corridors and nooks itching to be investigated.

The steps up had seats to rest, the steps down do not.

Attempts to peer through thick glass to see outside, but on narrow steps too much risk of blocking people behind, and you cant see much through the glass anyway.

Eventually though, you’re back to civilised areas, the original wide spiral staircase that took you to the Whispering Gallery — and now its an easy wander down to the exit again. This time accompanied by the deep bellows of the organ inside the Cathedral as religious life carries on uninterrupted by the tourists, separated by a stone wall.


There are in increasing number of places to see London from up high.

Due to the space, the very top of St Paul’s is not for lingering, but for photography, it is the best place in London to get skyline photos without a sheet of glass or protective netting in the way.

However, of all the viewing spots in London, only two offer something extra — a sense of achievement.

Anyone (well, almost anyone) can take a lift to the top of the Shard, or wander onto the London Eye, but it takes effort, and nerves to climb The Monument, or here St Paul’s Cathedral.

Knee shaking at times, and over 1,100 steps up and down, at times scarily narrow stairs that are municipal in nature. Old wiring and utilities never intended to be seen and unpolished corridors offer a sense of seeing the hidden.

The dome was never intended to be something that visitors would climb, the corridors and staircases only to be seen only by stonemasons carrying out their works.

It’s a huge contrast to the clean polished modern viewing platforms designed for visitors being offered by tall buildings and rotating wheels.

And, to my mind, all the better for it.

The Sunday openings take place throughout May, entry is £6.



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  1. Chris Jones says:

    Gosh that brings back a memory of going right to the very top inside what was called “The Golden Ball”. Reckon it would be around 1965. It was back then an option for those who could manage it. Health & Safety didn’t exist back then.

  2. ChrisMitch says:

    I remember going right up to viewing gallery outside top of the dome when I was a kid in the 80s. Not sure if it was part of the regular tour back then, or if we just hit a lucky day. Either way, it’s one of my enduring memories of London days out.

  3. John Simmons says:

    Like Chris, I also remember going right up to the top – climbing up a metal ladder so that my head was up in the lantern. Superb views!
    My dad took my brother and I; it must have been in the early/mid 60s.

    • Derek says:

      Wow i am pleased you mentioned that metal ladder i to have been up it,was one person at a time,and it was free back then.Lots of people think i imagined that ladder,

    • Lesley Hanner says:

      Went to St Paul’s yesterday and told my husband I had been right to the top – one at a time stuff and then didn’t believe myself!

    • David Peet says:

      I seem to remember two ladders because the lantern then was divided into two floors. Head and shoulders in the consoles, pointing only one way and gripping for dear life, a great experience. The chicken wire tended to inhibit photography with a Box Brownie and I have lost all my snaps, alas

  4. Ann French says:

    thank you for posting this article from St., Paul’s. the day that id did the climb to the top, i didn’t have any camera with me. so disappointed. but this helps.

  5. Carolina says:

    The scariest climb I’ve ever done…but the view was worth it and the wind was so refreshing at the top! Phew! St Pauls looked especially beautiful from the Tate afterwards….drinking tea, looking out…I was surprised I felt kinda proud I’d done it.

  6. sue says:

    I went up in the 60s when I was 7 on a Brownies outing – up the ladder into the ball or light – one of the best memories of my childhood. I think about it each time I see a panorama of London

  7. Geoff Steel says:

    I did this climb in 1964, while wandering around London with a camera, as I used to do as a youth; there are a couple of shots on my web site (http://steelnet.f2s.com/51ABWSteelnet48on/slides/1960s/0~011-22.htm).
    I don’t think I’d be up to it these days!

  8. Betty P says:

    This was one of the highlights of our last trip to London. Truly worth the effort to climb to the top.

  9. Simon Armstead says:

    I went up with my parents as a child, probably in the 1970s. I remember being terrified. I took my own children up last May and I remember thinking this is easy. I now understand why!

  10. Judy Mortimer says:

    I, too, thank you for this article. It was 1964 or 65 that I went up that metal ladder to stand with head inside the lantern, all alone at the very top of London. A memorable moment that I’m glad to find is so for others also. I didn’t dream it!! I can now prove it to my unbelieving friends.

  11. Karl Costabel says:

    Great story. In the late sixties I worked next to the Bank of England and at lunch time would take in the sights. One day I walked down Cheapside and went into St Paul’s and just kept climbing until I got to the ladder and stuck my head up into that ball. Amazing! Great memory. Thanks for sparking it.

  12. AG says:

    I did the climb in 2002. I remember near the top we had to climb single-file up a narrow metal ladder, and below us, there was nothing to prevent us plunging 30 storeys to the very bottom. Scariest climb ever!!

  13. Margaret Bowman says:

    I went into St Paul’s with a friend in 1963. All the staff were running around in a frenzy, as a memorial service had been arranged for the PM and Royal Family as Kennedy had just been assassinated (plus the tv people were there). We did the Whispering Gallery – whereupon my friend went down – and I went up. I just kept on going up (no-one had bothered to close any doors). I got to the ball – there was a ladder, which went up to the slit in the cross. I could see clouds (pollution?) floating through the slit. I dithered (quite afraid and alone!), and decided I would never have this chance again, and climbed up to the top of the ladder and looked out of the slits (the cross is about 6 feet wide). Then – I had the job of getting down again! By the time I got there, the place was very busy. I’m SO glad I did it -and one to tell my grandchildren.
    Life was so much more fun before Elf and Safety!

  14. Irene Noon says:

    I made this climb when I was 14 on a school trip .. many folk can’t believe I was allowed to climb this precarious metal ladder into the cross and dome but we had no health and safety then .. I will never forget that climb nor the view from the slit window .. this would have been around 1960 .. great memories

  15. John Shirley says:

    My father was a firefighter during World War 2 attached to St Paul’s Cathedral. He took me up that vertical iron ladder on his shoulders sometime in the late 1940s, when I was 4 or 5 years old. I can remember looking out at a vast area of rubble and bomb damage, which must have been where the Barbican estate is now. I tried to take my son up there in the early 1990s, but it was closed to the public.

  16. This is all good stuff to read because st 77, I have only just finished writing a book for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
    In the book I recall that on two occasions I did the climb right up inside St Paul’s Cross on the very top of the dome. It was around 1953 when I was 12 years old.
    The view through the wire grill across London was amazing, also very windy.
    I wasn’t lucky enough to have a camera, but I’ve never forgotten it.
    Good on all those that have done it….it was breathtaking.
    On the way down we had little ‘talk to the wall’ in the Whispering Gallery

  17. Kezzie says:

    I went with my Mum and sister aged 6 and we went to the Golden Gallery and we were going to go to the Golden Ball and got half way up but I, with vertigo, had a massive meltdown. I do regret missing that opportunity now you can’t do it anymore!

  18. Malcolm Ashton says:

    I went up into the orb and cross with my Father in 1957 when I was ten. An unforgettable experience!

  19. Mary Thomas says:

    I also went up to the orb & cross with my father too in 1952 when I was 8 yrs old. He was vicar of a nearby parish & helped with services at the cathedral. I remember the bomb sites around the cathedral. Exhausting climb for little legs but a unique & privileged experience which burnt an indelible place in my memory

  20. Ellen Crane says:

    My Grandfather designed the wrought iron railings around the golden gallery. Trying to research it. He also designed the regimental shields and the tulips in the crypt, would have been in the 60’s I think.

  21. Philip Schafer says:

    Yep, I also remember going up and sticking my head in the ball at the top. Thought I saw silver coins or something stuck around the inside of the ball. I remember the endless ladders and was probably 10 at the time and don’t remember any fear of the heights. Nobody believed me, so I’m glad this is here

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