The assault on St Paul’s Cathedral: or how to gain entry after midnight

Written by Ian Blair

 

I have lost count of the number of mad-cap suggestions fuelled by alcohol, that have been aired after long evenings spent in City hostelries: two of the most common being to run the London Marathon, or to leap out of an airplane, with I hasten to add a parachute. This post is about one such late night proposition that did in fact take place, probably due to it being a spontaneous decision, and not having had the benefit of a night to sleep it off and realise that perhaps it was not an altogether wise suggestion.

The evening of Friday 25th August 1978 began like many others, when after a week on site DUA archaeologists convened to a City pub: usually it was ‘Magogs’ on Russia Row, just off Cheapside, with the attraction of its three dartboards in the basement. Given the nuances of pub opening hours across the City of London at that time, it was not unusual to be the start of a mini pub crawl of three or more taverns, as progressively each one called last orders and closed, and we moved on to the next. The last stop on this night was the ‘Magpie and Stump’ opposite the Old Bailey, possibly as this lay outside of the City’s jurisdiction, and consequently had longer licensing hours.

Although by this late hour we had all had a good few pints and only a handful of people remained, I believe it was I who suggested that we make an attempted assault on St Paul’s Cathedral, whose north-west tower housing twelve bells was at that time shrouded with scaffolding, to facilitate its restoration, and which we had clearly subliminally noted when passing by on our way to the Magpie and Stump. So close to midnight four slightly the worse for wear archaeologists: Ian Blair, John Burke-Easton, Dominic Perring (DUA), and Gareth ? (ILAU), left the relative safety of our base camp at the Magpie and Stump, and weaved off towards Wren’s English Baroque style masterpiece resplendent under floodlights.

On arrival at the base of the bell tower we jumped up and dragged ourselves up the face of the plywood hoarding taking care to avoid the barbed wire on its top, the scaffolding behind now fully accessible. It was complete madness on my part, but instead of taking the sensible route within the confines of the boarded gantries, which afforded safe ladder access to each successive staging, I elected to take the direct but perilous straight route up the external north face of the scaffold, pulling myself up the vertical standard scaffold tubes to each successive platform. It is a testament that I am now recounting this, that demonstrates just how tight a grip I had on the scaffold as I climbed.

Reaching the top gantry that encircled the top of the bell tower we were once again together, feeling exhilarated at a challenging dare completed, but not having given a thought as to what we were going to do next, although seconds later the blue flashing lights far below left us with little choice. In the hope that our being over one hundred and fifty foot up in the air afforded us some degree of protection, we elected to simply stay put in the hope that eventually the police who had now gathered in numbers on the ground, would simply go away, but of course they did not. In the commotion we had not noticed that at some point Gareth had silently slipped away and vanished, and then there were three.

Nothing much seemed to happen for the next twenty minutes or so, as we sat on our lofty perches, taking occasional sneaked glances through gaps between the scaffold boards to the ground below. Until ultimately breaking the silence, there was the unmistakable sound of movement on the gantries below us, and of unseen individuals climbing ever higher towards us. We now knew if we had ever doubted it, that the game was up, but still we stood our ground, until the appearance of two policeman through the ladder access at the end of the platform, confirmed the fact that we were now ‘under arrest’.

The three apprehended ‘youths’ were led down to a lower gantry and then taken along the edge of the roof of the cathedral nave, where more policemen some with dogs were waiting, ‘try to run for it and the dog will have you’ was a needless warning given by one of them at this juncture, as of course we were coming quietly and meekly.

We were then led through a door and into what I felt was a small lift, but maybe that was simply an impression given by a lot of people being in it at one time, which took us down to the ground floor, and into the subtly lit cavernous main body of the cathedral nave. We were then escorted across the nave and exited through a door, ironically at the base of the north side of the bell tower that we had climbed an hour earlier and exited through a door in the hoarding to the outside world beyond.

Nothing could have prepared me for the reception that greeted us, as the policemen who were guiding us, took a much firmer grip on us by pulling our arms high up behind our backs and frog-marched us out into a blaze of flashbulbs from the cameras of waiting reporters. Clearly news had got out of something happening at St Paul’s Cathedral, a location easily reached by press crews based in Fleet Street on the other side of Ludgate Hill, and we were later told that there had even been a mention on the late news on BBC Radio.

Our twenty seconds of celebrity fame over, we were then loaded into a waiting Black Maria van, and I remember as we sat there hearing a call over the police radio of a bomb alert at Liverpool Street, my only thought being I really hope that this is a false alarm, and fortunately for us it was. We were taken to Snow Hill police station off Holborn Viaduct, which ironically was just around the corner from the Magpie and Stump, where are journey had started.

On arrival, the three miscreants were checked in, our possessions bagged up, and we were shown to our rooms, minus our shoes. We were all subsequently interviewed, and the atmosphere gradually became more relaxed, as it became plain to all that we had simply scaled St Paul’s for a dare after a slightly inebriated evening out. Interviews over, we were all released during the early hours of the morning and no further action was taken.

In the intervening years, as I pass by St Paul’s Cathedral, I cannot help but look up and recall that August night so long ago, and often muse as to what became of the photos that had been taken of us as we were marched out by the police, as they were never to my knowledge published. Perhaps one day they will come to light in some dusty forgotten press photographic archive, which would be funny, and I would certainly love to have one framed large on my wall, to recall our impromptu ‘all areas’ midnight tour of Wren’s masterpiece, and of close friendships that persist to this day.

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