Reporting from London—So you hate royal weddings. Or you love them. Or maybe you've caught yourself attending to arcane details of Prince William and Kate Middleton's plans for April 29, but you can't say exactly why.
Here's one reason: They defy time.
Yet a few Fridays from now in London, you can count on a Gothic church, a carriage procession from that church to Buckingham Palace, great queues of commoners and vast inventories of souvenir spoons. To watch a royal wedding is to imagine a world that doesn't change.
But it does, fortunately. I've just spent several days at London landmarks reminding myself of what's been built or transformed — and discovering how dramatically the churches have raised their tourist prices — since London's last epic ("epic" being the operative word) royal wedding on July 29, 1981.
It seemed logical to start with St. Paul's Cathedral, which is where Prince Charles wed Lady Diana Spencer (although it's not where William will wed Kate).
Three decades ago, it cost a tourist nothing to stroll the cathedral's checkerboard floor — and what a floor it is. From it, you gaze up, up, up into the overwhelming 365-foot dome designed in the late 17th century by Christopher Wren, London's original star architect. You did have to pay, however, to climb the 257- or 259-step spiral stairwell (it depends on who's counting) to the Whispering Gallery that circles the interior of the dome, offering a view from 99 feet above the worshipers below.
It's hard to imagine a bigger target, yet somehow, though German bombing leveled many a London building during World War II, British forces kept St. Paul's safe. At war's end in 1945, 30,000 Britons gathered here to celebrate. When wartime leader Winston Churchill died in 1965, authorities brought his body here to lie in state.
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And when Charles and Diana married here in 1981, every detail got a good going-over: the couple's decision to leave "obey" out of Diana's vows; the red carpet they walked on; the 25-foot train of Diana's dress; the 20-year-old bride stumbling on the full name of her husband-to-be, the 32-year-old groom mixing up his pronouns on "worldly goods."
The BBC estimated 600,000 people in the streets and 750 million watching televisions worldwide that day. The couple's first son, William, was born less than a year later, and a second son, Harry, followed in 1984. The couple separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, just a year before Diana's death with two others in a Paris car crash. When Prince Charles quietly married Camilla Parker Bowles in a civil ceremony in 2005, it was at Windsor Guildhall, far from here.
These days it's free to see St. Paul's if you're worshiping. But tourists will pay about $24 for adults and $9 for most children, with a slight discount for families. (Some days, there is a fast-track line for people who have prepaid their admission fee online, as I did. But other days, like the day I turned up, there is no fast-track line.)
There's no doubt that it costs a fortune to keep the place whole as so many visitors troop through. But in my few moments by the entrance, I heard two British visitors hesitate at the cost.
"I'll give it a miss and come back later," one man said. The other planned on returning just before closing, hoping to slip in for free.
Once you're in, if your legs are willing and your nerves can take the close quarters of the stairwell, climb the steps to the Whispering Gallery, enjoy the view and test the acoustics (said to make whispers audible at 100 feet).
Just 119 more steps will take you to the Stone Gallery and its sweeping balcony views of the city skyline, including all sorts of strangely shaped skyscrapers that have risen in the last decade. Here, as you spy the tiny people walking the streets far below, is a fine place to remind yourself that in 1673, when Wren got approval from King Charles II for his design of this church, nobody understood it especially well. Isaac Newton was still more than a decade away from publishing his law of universal gravitation.
For the fittest of all travelers, 152 more steps will take them to the Golden Gallery, about 280 feet above the floor. I can't tell you about that view, because it was a cold and cloudy day, and I was tired. Down, down, down I clambered to the crypt, where I could sprawl on the carpet and be surrounded by "Oculus," a 30-minute series of 270-degree films, unveiled in July and shown continuously.
With images flickering on three walls and the score resounding deeply, "Oculus" traces the cathedral through the centuries, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 that destroyed it to the blitz of 1940-1941 to the rousing sounds of a contemporary choir rehearsal. See it.