If you were to walk up the spiral staircase to St Paul Cathedral’s famous whispering gallery, you might notice locked doors leading to hidden places, and behind one of them lurks a marvel.

The Triforium.

A huge hidden corridor that runs around the nave hidden high up above the heads of the worshipers below.

No one is entirely sure why the space is called a Triforium, but in ancient times someone described a similar space in Canterbury with such a name, and it stuck.

For those Cathedral’s large enough to have one, it’s a valuable space, often used for storage, or getting around without using the main floor — and here in St Paul’s Cathedral it’s also the route to two hidden marvels.

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Small tours are allowed to ascend up the famous spiral stairs, and then turn left through a locked door into a space that has plain walls, but a richly decorated ceiling. The ceiling is thus, as it can just about be seen from within the main part of the Cathedral, but the rest is hidden from view and unadorned.

In fact, most of the Cathedral was plain, until some Victorians decided it really needed some more oomph, and started covering the walls in mosaics. Then some other Victorians were aghast and protested, so now we have a Cathedral that’s half richly decorated, and half that’s plain.

What’s also plain is the hidden Triforium, which is unadorned stone, and used as storage. Such as a collection of stones that come from the previous Cathedral that burnt down 350 years ago, or cupboards full of documents.

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And a door. A door to a library that hits you strongly with the smell of centuries of old books as you pass within. A door that leads to a small but ornately decorated space.

A painting of Henry Compton, Bishop of London hangs over the fireplace, who is quoted of saying he found St Paul’s burnt to the ground, but left it built up high again. Fortunately, he was more generous than modest, and the first 2,000 books of the post-fire’s library collection were donated by him.

Should you want to study its liturgical¬† tomes, it’s open to the public who can show a need to visit.

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Throughout a visit, you are hidden from view, and from seeing the public space, but a Triforium isn’t always concealed behind stone walls, and here at St Paul’s it leaps across the main entrance with an open bridge that offers stunning views of the length of the nave.

It’s also “inside” the main Cathedral, so no photos here. But up here is where choir’s might stand, where trumpets blow when the Queen arrives, and where a small organ is remotely played.

Thanks to reverberation, the sound of the main organ further away takes about 6 seconds to reach this end of the building, and if a choir is singing, they will be out of tune. So a small organ up here replicates what the main organ does far away, and keeps the singers in tune with the music.

The massive heraldic trumpets are fairly new, and it is reputed not liked by The Queen who was more than a bit startled when she visited for the first time after their installation.

However, there is another room up here which is reserved for something that never happened.

Sir Christopher Wren famously altered the design of the Cathedral from what he was authorised to build to what we have today — but there was an earlier design. And this room houses a massive model which was constructed to show off the idea.

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It’s also decorated within, and if you have the key, there’s a door on the plinth a person could crawl through to see inside as well as outside. However impressive the model is, it failed to impress the Church of England.

Their main concern is that churches take decades to build and need to fund raise throughout the construction, and the first version of the rebuilt St Paul’s couldn’t be used during construction. They wanted something which could start offering prayers to God and taking collections from Man as quickly as possible.

Thus the current version, which started at one end, and soon as that was nearly completed, they could turn it into a modest church and then extend slowly down the nave as it in turn extended.

Although not part of the regular tours, this huge room is laid out museum fashion, with lots of early drawings and models, and the death mask from Sir Chris himself.

 

Tours of the Triforium used to be for prebooked groups only, but now more conventional tours are offered of the space above your heads a few times per month.

Tours cost an additional £8 on top of the admission fee to the main Cathedral, and have to be booked by email. Details are here.

Some 1.6 million people visited St Paul’s Cathedral last year, but only a small handful can claim to have been into the Triforium.

You also get to stand at the top of the “harry potter” staircase and stare down at the ordinary visitors staring up.

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4 comments on “Take a tour of St Paul Cathedral’s hidden Triforum
  1. James Alexander Cameron says:

    Triforim is the name for the second storey of an interior elevation in Gothic architecture. Really this is a tribune gallery, as you can walk behind it – technically a triforium has just a lean-to roofspace behind it. It’s very unusual to use the term in classical architecture.

    This is called a triforium no doubt with comparison to the similar space at the Gothic Westminster Abbey, which is also currently being fitted out for general tourist visits.

  2. Wole says:

    It’s 18 quid to get into the cathedral, and another 8 quid on top of that to access the triforium. I’m glad I visited St Pauls when I was a kid and it was free!

    (PS, it’s 20 quid to get into Westminster Abbey, and even St Barts church charges a fiver!)

  3. Christopher George. says:

    Why the prohibition on photography? I’m getting very tired of being told not to take pictures even with the flash turned off. I have made up my mind NOT to visit establishments that refuse reasonable requests to photograph.

    • Mike Manners says:

      1. What should be remembered, is takes millions of pounds a year to maintain St Paul’s and keep it open.

      2. Although St Paul’s isn’t a museum, it houses many ancient artefacts – and, the building has to be safe for visitors to enter.

      3.Visitors respect that St Paul’s Cathedral is firstly a place of worship. The cathedral building is also a national treasure but has no funding from the state to help keep the building open.

      As a place of worship, it is of course a house of God where many come to pray and the reason that it was built.

      Those that refuse to visit because of entrance fees have that choice, of course. Just as one can choose a pub or a mode of transport or holiday destination.

      I am happy therefore to contribute by visiting and paying the entrance fee – in the knowledge that, so-doing in a very small way, I am helping to keep this wonderful building open, for future generations.

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