Scene: a hot summer’s day in London. Susanna sits on the upper level of a London bus, gently sweating through her dress. She is traveling from work to her church in the City. As the bus moves along Fleet Street at a glacial pace, Susanna reads. Her book of choice: Oliver Twist.
Now that you have the setting, allow me to share with you how I came to learn a super cool random historical fact last summer. I was reading Oliver Twist in an effort to support my local library, which sadly has a very limited selection. Twist was one of the few books they had that was actually on my “to read” list.
The copy I had was one of those Penguin Classics editions where nearly every other sentence has a note referring you to the back of the book. I find those notes really irritating. Often they explain something rather obvious to the reader; or alternatively, they explain something that has absolutely no bearing on the story and so is totally useless. I usually ignore the notes and avoid flipping to the back of the book (That’s the other thing! The notes are all WAY in the back of the book, so you have to waste time flipping around trying to find the reference in the appendix in order to learn something that is actually totally superfluous to the story! Ugh!).
But as I was riding along on that summer’s day, I read something that did actually prompt me to flip to the back of the book. After [spoiler alert (although really, is that necessary? This book is approaching 200 years old, not to mention the classic musical adaptation that practically everyone has seen)] Oliver has been re-captured by Fagin and Co. whilst on an errand for Mr. Brownlow, he is kept locked away in a secret location, without hope of being discovered:
“…as the window of Oliver’s observatory was nailed down, and dimmed with the rain and smoke of years, it was as much as he could do to make out the forms of the different objects beyond, without making any attempt to be seen or heard, – which he had as much chance of being as if he had been inside the ball of St. Paul’s Cathedral.”
I flipped to the back of the book to read this note and figure out what Dickens meant by “ball of St. Paul’s.” Well! Boy, am I glad I did!
Turns out, back in the day you could go up inside the ball at the base of the cross on the top of the dome. Yes, that ball that’s so small in the picture above that you can hardly make it out! You used to be able to walk around inside there. And apparently, there was enough room for like 10 people! Whaaaaaaaaaaat!?
If you visit St. Paul’s today, you can still climb up to the top of the dome. You can walk around the Whispering Gallery inside the dome and then continue to two outside galleries (the Stone Gallery and the Golden Gallery), the higher of which you can just see in the image above – that little fenced bit at the bottom of the pic. It’s actually one of my favorite views in London and it’s super cool to climb up and up (if you don’t mind heights). Still, as I sat on a bus approaching St. Paul’s that day, I was incredulous. You could keep going!? Multiple people can actually fit in that ball up there!? No way!
It was a surreal moment. I was reading a book written 175 years earlier, referencing a building still standing in front of me. I mean look how close I was!
As my modern-day bus inched towards the Cathedral, I craned my neck to get a good look at the top of the dome. The closer I got, the more the scale came into focus. I could see the tiny people outside on the Golden Gallery. When I looked at them in relation to the ball, it didn’t seem so impossible that a handful of them could fit inside it. Still, mind blowing.
In the weeks that followed, I shared this fact with anyone who would listen. It was my favorite topic of conversation for pretty much the rest of the summer. And it’s probably one of my favorite facts about London now.
If anyone knows how I can get up there…seriously, let me know.