London VIP Tour
Walking up the 257 steps to the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I can’t really complain because it’s impressive no matter how many times you see it, but I could practically give this tour by now with the number of times I have.
Then, about ten steps away from the top, Janet, our St. Paul’s tour guide, unlocks an unmarked door to the right and notions for our group of eight enter.
Things just got interesting.
I notice people trying to look in and staring at our group as we enter an area of St. Paul’s I never knew existed: the Triforium. This section of the church, which is not generally open to the public, is basically backstage to the cathedral. Leading us through this private section of a London icon, Janet shows us the Geometric Staircase, which was a film location in “Harry Potter: the Prisoner of Azkaban”, and to see the wooden model for St. Paul’s Cathedral that Christopher Wren pitched to King Charles II before the architect was given permission to build.
Staring into a perfectly crafted wooden dollhouse of St. Paul’s, which takes up an entire room, I realize just how special this tour is and just how few people get to see London this way.
The Exclusive-Access Tour to The Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral and The View from The Shard, a VIP experience only available on Viator, will have people seeing three of London’s most popular attractions as well ceremonies and areas of these attractions that aren’t generally open to the public, all led by expert tour guides.
I arrive at Tower Hill at 8:20 am to meet Norma, my Blue Badge Guide for the day.
What does it mean to be a Blue Badge Guide?
It’s a national association of tour guides in the United Kingdom that are highly trained and certified in tourism. They receive special access to some of London’s top sites and attractions. Only those with a Blue Badge are allowed to conduct tours at places like The Tower of London, Parliament and Windsor Castle.
The Tower of London
Norma’s Blue Badge gives our group permission to enter The Tower of London before it even opens to the public at 9 am. We’re the only people not working inside the Tower gates at 8:45 am to see its Ceremony of the Keys, which consists of the Sergeant Yeoman accompanied by the Queen’s Guard, taking the Queen’s Keys to open the main entrance of The Tower to the public. Greeted at the River Thames entrance by a Beefeater, or Yeoman Warden as they’re traditionally called, our group is led to the Traitors’ Gate to watch the 700 year tradition.
Before watching the ceremony, our Beefeater guide explains where the name of this military ranking came from, what military men must accomplish to become a Beefeater at The Tower of London and that about 45 families of the rank live in the Tower. The ceremony only runs for about five minutes. It feels quite surreal to stand in an empty and quiet Tower (it’s usually packed with tourists) and watch such an old tradition next to a traditionally dressed military man.
As soon as the ceremony ends, crowds of tourists seem to take over The Tower in seconds. We say goodbye to our Beefeater and Norma takes the group to a quiet section of the Tower to tell us more about its history.
She gives everyone about an hour to wander the grounds on their own. In this time, I see the Crown Jewels and tour White Tower. The Crown Jewels are a royal ceremonial jewelry collection, including The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross and St. Edward’s Crown, both used for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. The crown is decorated with the Cullinan Diamond of South Africa, which is the largest diamond in the world. White Tower is the main structure on the grounds and also the oldest. Built for William the Conquerer in 1075, White Tower served mainly for military purposes, but did have accommodation to suit a king. Today, it houses several historical exhibits.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
It’s about a 45 minute walk to St. Paul’s Cathedral, our next stop on the tour. Along the way Norma points out important buildings and tells us how they contributed to London’s history.
Upon arrival at St. Paul’s she tells us that the current cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1710 after Old St. Paul’s Cathedral burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. She talks about Wren and how he changed London’s skyline forever by featuring a dome instead of a spire, the dominant feature of Old St. Paul’s, on his new cathedral.
She explains what an important symbol St. Paul’s was to London during WWII and how residents slept in the church and would put out fires from bombs with sand to ensure the icon was not destroyed. She leads us around the American Chapel. Dedicated to American soldiers who fought in Europe during WWII, this was a new edition to the church after the original area was destroyed by bomb during WWII.
Then, she lets Janet, a St. Paul’s guide with over ten years experience, take over the tour for a bit. As you know from the start of this article, Janet leads us on a tour of St. Paul’s that most don’t even know about. The Triforium of St. Paul’s is imperative to the frame of the structure, but sort of serves as a storage area, though that phrase doesn’t do it justice in anyway.
Storage area to most means attic full of junk. Storage area to St. Paul’s means a secret library that houses rare books from the 17th and 18th centuries and prior, artifacts from Old St. Paul’s and more.
First Janet shows us around the structure. We see behind St. Paul’s famous dome and she points out a cork, which patches up a hole where the rope went through for painter Sir James Thornhill to attach himself to while painting the scenes of St. Paul’s life onto the dome’s interior. She points to a room next to the dome that was used for Wren’s office while building the church.
While learning about the church’s structure and little hidden areas, the church library keeper walks by and Janet asks if the tour group can have a quick look.
As he unlocks and opens the doors the smell of old books hits me. My mouth drops as I walk from what is essentially a bare bones clay and dusty hallway into this secret library with high ceilings, the top half white stone with large windows and the bottom completely decorated in dark wood. Filled bookshelves line the walls in two stories, the top accessible by a and balcony-like walk way. Tables on the bottom are covered in books, papers and sculptures of important men in the church’s history. Paintings and photos, including a very famous one from the “Daily Mail” taken of St. Paul’s during the Blitz, leans against these tables.
The library keeper gives us some background on the design and collection. He says the rarest and most unique book to the collection is William Tyndale’s New Testament, which is the first translation of this half of the Bible from Latin to English. Producing the scripture in anything other than Latin during the 13th century, the time of its publication, was considered blasphemous, so copies were burned then, even in front of St. Paul’s. Only three original copies are known of and one lives in St. Paul’s library.
I really don’t want to leave the room, but Janet continues to guide us around the Triforium and the tour continues to get better. The next stop is the Geometric Staircase. There are 88 steps leading from the Dean’s entrance to the top, where our group looks down to a star in the tiles at the bottom. This stairwell appeared in “Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban”. Janet even lets us take photos of this stop on the tour, which is generally not permitted in St. Paul’s.
We cross the main entrance to the cathedral and have a quick look at what Janet calls “The BBC television camera crew spot”. This is where camera crews film during events at the cathedral, like Margaret Thatcher’s funeral recently. After taking a few photos from here she points out some things in storage on the other side and leads us to a room that was meant to be another library, but now houses Wren’s original model of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The room is known as Nelson’s Trophy Room, because it kept all of Admiral Nelson’s trophies during his funeral. The famed military leader who died during the Battle of Trafalgar is buried in the Crypt at St. Paul’s. None of his trophies are there today. In fact, I don’t know where they would fit with Wren’s model taking up the entire room.
The model features two domes, but as you know he only ended up building one. It’s made of dark wood and includes chiselled details on the outside and inside. I even saw pained feathers on the inside. It’s so large people can actually stand inside of it by entering through doors on the table it sits, though they don’t allow that anymore.
We finish off our tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral by visiting the Whispering Gallery and eating lunch at the restaurant in the Crypt area, a two-course meal is included in the tour. Our’s consisted of pea and watercress soup and goats cheese and sun-dried tomato ravioli. It’s not your average museum food.
View at the Shard
After lunch, Norma leads us on another 45 minute walking tour across the Millennium Bridge, along the River Thames and through the Medieval alleyways of Southwark, on the way see The View at The Shard.
Throughout the tour different guides and professionals kept commenting on how they hadn’t even been to The Shard yet and were eager to visit.
What can you say about it?
It’s the tallest building in London and the Shard offers the irrefutable best views of the city. Plus, it’s an interesting addition to a skyline of contrasting structures.
A clean cut, skinny, glass pyramid, people can travel up 72 floors of this 2012 addition to the London skyline. The View at the top of The Shard includes two levels, one of the 69th floor, which is closed-in by glass, and one on the 72nd which is open to the elements slightly at the top. From here you have a complete view of the city for as far as your eyes can see. I especially liked seeing how much the River Thames winds and bends through the middle of the city. Use modern telescopes for a closer look at double decker buses and people bustling along below. Instead of looking into binoculars, you look down on a screen and point to areas you want a closer view.
We’re very lucky to have clear skies and sun for our visit to The Shard, the whole day for that matter. I think this is an activity where people should really wait for a clear day, because it’s expensive (?29.95 per adult) and the weather in London is known to be foggy.
Norma finishes the tour at 4pm just when I start to feel tired. The whole day went at a perfect pace and includes just the right amount of activities. On top of the tour being VIP, I think one of its other selling points is the parallels in London architecture it presents.
One of the things visitors to London notice most about the city is how different the buildings are, stone structures from the 11th century juxtaposed against the modern, glass skyscrapers of today. It’s a dominant characteristic to London and one fully experienced on this tour as it features the new (The Shard 2012), the old (St. Paul’s 1710) and even older that that (Tower of London 1075).
It’s priced quite on point with that attractions is includes and caliber of guides ($218.86). Plus, the London VIP Tour includes things offered in the city that you just can buy on your own, it’s literally not possible. So it’s worth the value.