The other day was the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first Harry Potter book. No, this fact doesn’t make me feel old. Instead, I am grateful that I have had 20 years of a life with Harry. Because I love these books. I am true believer, have been since the start. And so are my children who have grown up with the books, the audio, narrated by the stupendous Stephen Fry, and eventually the films. We really, really love the films. Our New Year’s Eve tradition is to watch them, one after the other. We have been to the Harry Potter-Warner Bros. studios, just north of London many, many times. It is a fantastic, magical place. The last time we were there we saw a marriage proposal…..on the Hogwart’s Express. Of course we have been photographed pushing a cart into Platform 9-3/4 at King’s Cross. I can point out the entrance to Diagon Alley in Leadenhall Market and that opening scene in Half Blood Prince with the Death Eaters Flying over and through Millennium Bridge makes me swell with pride, as I feel rather possessive of what I think is one of London’s mot beautiful locations. And then there is the St. Paul’s connection.
I love St. Paul’s. It is the most gorgeous building in the world, and lucky, lucky me gets to work their as an official guide, every week. Built by the great St Christopher Wren between 1675-1710 after the Great Fire of London left the previous St Paul’s in a ruinous state, the Cathedral is awe-inspiring, it is perfection in stone and light. And then there is the Harry Potter connection…..
The Dean’s Staircase, also knowns as the Geometric Staircase, was built, in the south tower, on Wren’s request, by William Kempster between 1704/05. It connects the floor of the Cathedral to the Triforium, an attic like space between the inner wall of the nave and the outer screen wall of the cathedral, which among other things, contains the library. It is 88 steps of sheer marvelousness; the stairs seem to float. When I stand on the landing at the top I feel like nothing is actually supporting me, a sensation I distinctly dislike and I am too afraid to get close to the edge. So my photos of it from above are always rubbish. But it is beautiful. Incredibly, dazzlingly beautiful. Wren was so pleased with the final result he gave Kempster of bonus of 20 guineas. Google wouldn’t give me an exchange rate from 1705, so I am going to guess the spending power was about 200 pounds. Not a bad tip.
300 years on it is the staircase to Professor Trelawney’s studio of Divination. Emma Thompson’s character, the one everyone thinks is crazy but turns out to be right, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It is also in the final installation of HP, Deathly Hallows Part 2, though the railing is made plain in the scene. Harry is going up to search for Rowena Ravenclaw’s diadem and Ron is heading down, wand out, ready to fight. They stop on the stairs and exchange a few words.
Harry Potter isn’t the only film to feature this special space. It is also in the opening scene of Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. runs down and down and down the staircase, they make it seem much longer, to rescue a woman who is tied to a table in a room that is clearly not St Paul’s. Ah, the magic of movies. Recently the cathedral was closed for the filming of Paddington 2…please, please let our favourite bear get into serious mischief on these stairs. Maybe rivers of marmalade cascading down from the top? Back in 2010, sculptor Antony Gormley created a piece specifically for the Geometric Staircase, a falling figure in a dense cloud of wire, entitled Flare II. As Gormley explained at the time, “Wren understood proportion, space and gravitational dynamics as no other British architect of his time, and the Geometric Staircase is a supreme and elegant outcome of this understanding. Flare II is my attempt to use applied geometry to construct an energy field describing a human space in space.” Stunning.
But all of St. Paul’s is stunning. My passion for the place is only matched by my passion for sharing it with others. So it was an honour and a privilege when the Cathedral recently asked me to yap away about the American Memorial Chapel and Billy Fiske for PBS, the American television station, for their series on English cathedrals. I was thrilled. Beyond thrilled. And I loved every second of it. Of course, I may end up on the editing floor, but I hope at least my gloved hand pointing out Glenn Miller’s name (the musician and band leader) in the Roll of Honour in the Chapel will make it to air. Why is he there? Because he is one of the 28,000 Americans who died in World War II having spent time in Britain. Miller was on his way from the UK to France when his plane disappeared over the English Channel on 15 December, 1944. And what about the other man I mentioned? Billy Fiske. The first American to fight and die in WWII. A short life, but an incredible one, but I say no more. You will have to wait for the PBS show, due next summer. Better yet, come visit me at St. Paul’s. I will show you Fiske’s pilot wings and tell you all about him. I will show you Prof. Trelawney’s stairs too. And so much more. I will wear sparkly shoes. You will be enchanted.