on June 1, 2008
There are four towers along the Thames that are instantly recognizable as ‘London’. The oldest by far are the twin towers of Westminster Abbey, which have looked out over the river for far longer than the dome of St. Paul’s, the towers of Parliament, or the newcomer of the bunch, the London Eye (also the architectural poorboy of the four).On my first visit to London, my wife and I wandered up to Westminster from our Victoria hotel, stopping for lunch at Jenny Lo’s Tea House, poking our heads into Westminster Cathedral, and then touring Westminster Abbey in late afternoon. It was more than a little dream-like, as we struggled to convince ourselves we were actually in London, walking by the tombs of Elizabeth and her sister Mary, gazing at the remarkably ordinary Coronation Chair, and craning our necks upward towards the vaulted ceiling. All too quickly we were out the other side, struggling to hold onto what we’d seen.So it was a given that we were going back. We headed for the Abbey and Westminster on our second morning in London, taking the bus to the Victoria Embankment and walking along the gardens and ministries, with the towers of Parliament and the Abbey finally coming in to view. Westminster Abbey opens at 9:30, and we crossed Parliament Square just as the doors opened, walking by St. Margaret’s Church on the way to the Abbey steps.It took more time than necessary to sort out our tickets, as the clerk originally insisted that we weren’t able to use the 2-for-1 coupons we’d brought. After 15 minutes of having a supervisor correct her and issue the refunds, we finally began touring the church, opting again to distribute audio tours all around and reconnect later if necessary. Soon after we began, one of the ministers ascended the pulpit, and asked for a moment of silence and prayer, as they do every hour. The first prayer of the morning was by Bishop Desmond Tutu, asking for wisdom and justice. We were there for two or three of these moments, which serve as a reminder that this is an active church and place of worship.It is a church, not a cathedral: only once in its long history has it been the seat of a bishop, and Elizabeth I closed that era by making it a Royal Peculiar, directly under the authority of the sovereign and not a bishop. That seems appropriate, given its role in the coronation and burial of monarchs: every King or Queen of England has been crowned here since the Norman invasion in 1066. Many are entombed here, including the only sainted British monarch, Edward the Confessor, whose tomb is nearly hidden behind an array of wooden fences. Elizabeth and Mary lie next to each other, and over a dozen other kings and queens are also buried here.Your visit to the Abbey will proceed along a well-defined route, which takes you through the ornately carved Quire, back down the Apse, with the many chapels and tombs of dukes and duchesses along the sides. It’s easy to move too fast, especially if the crowds are heavy, as they were on our first afternoon. I found the audio guide helpful just for keeping me from passing the 20 or so highlights. The descriptions of these points were good, and often supplemented by additional commentary from the Dean or other members of the clergy, and music by one of the Abbey’s many choirs.Its role in the English nation and long history as a house of worship are supplemented by another role as a repository for memorials to a vast array of Britons. Poet’s Corner is a densely tiled collection of plaques noting nearly everyone of importance in British cultural life, from Chaucer onwards. I scoured the floors and walls looking for Dickens, Auden, Handel, Olivier, Dryden, Tennyson and others. Scientists are here and elsewhere, some (like Newton, despite his heretical views) commemorated with large statues, others (like Edmund Halley, to whom Newton largely owes his reputation) noted long after the fact with a modern, comet-like plaque on the wall alongside the Cloisters.It’s easy to see how the Abbey is a work of many ages. The magnificent Lady Chapel, added by Henry VIII, has a completely different feel than the rest of the Abbey, with its high, intricate stonework, and large window that fills the space with a much different light than the main church. It was my favorite part of the building, and made easier to appreciate with a thoughtfully placed 2’ x 3’ mirror that allows you to appreciate the ceiling without permanently damaging your neck muscles.Leaving the church during the tour, you can walk around the Abbey’s courtyard, where entrances to the museum, the Pyx and the Chapter House can be found. So many of these rooms have served a variety of purposes during the building's life, perhaps none more so than the beautiful Chapter House. I don’t remember seeing this on my first visit, but this high-ceiling, octagonal room began life as the gathering place for the Abbey’s resident monks. Archaeological work has uncovered the original hand-painted tiles that form the floor, along with large sections of early murals that line the walls. Even on a relatively mild March morning, this unheated room was quite cool, a reminder of what these buildings must have felt like throughout much of their history. As you near the exit, there’s yet another set of reminders of the price paid by Britain from 1939-45, and their gratitude for the help that their American cousins provided in beating back Hitler’s vicious onslaught. A set of volumes records the names of all those civilians who died during the war, and turning a few of these pages was a sobering insight into what this vicious period of time was like throughout England. As you leave, be sure to look at the statues above the door. At first glance, they may look typical of the figures that adorn the entryways of nearly every gothic structure, but their cleaner and more modern appearance gives them away. Shown here are 10 martyrs of the 20th century, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and others I had trouble identifying.The extensive gift shop is now on your right, which as in many churches is worth visiting if your memory, like mine, works better with images of what you’ve just seen. It’s probably a blessing that photography isn’t allowed inside, thus allowing me and many others, I’m sure, to tour the Abbey in less than a day.
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