Day the Fourth Part the First: Westminster Abbey

I got all verbose on the Abbey, so I’m breaking up my entries a bit. Onward, then.

Memories are already fading, which is disappointing, but here we go. I was a little slow in waking up, since I didn’t sleep very well the night before. Part of this — hell with it. All of it has to do with sleeping in a hostel. I’ll be posting a separate rumination on my London accommodation later, but for the time being, just know that it’s a bad idea to forget your earplugs when sleeping in a hostel. That, and the blister demanded some proper attention. Cleaned it up, slapped a plaster on it, and out I went into the incredibly clear and clean and not at all rainy morning.

I bought trip insurance just in case it snowed in the UK. I missed it by a week and a half.

I realize now I was so damned tired I can’t remember how I got there. I’m pretty sure I took the Tube. I didn’t want to be delayed by morning city traffic while riding a bus. But I didn’t get off at the Westminster stop, since I clearly remember walking toward the east, past the Sanctuary, to get to the northern entrance. Did I get off at St James’ Park? Honestly, what-the-what? I know I would have remembered passing by the New Scotland Yard.

This is why I wish I’d written these while traveling. But I guess I’d be forgetting even more things with the increased lack of sleep. This is what photos are for, presumably. Maybe next time I’ll sketch notes as I go along.

I will admit, to my complete shame, that I’d never really understood how significant the Abbey is in British history. I usually like to have a sense of the places I’ll be visiting; I like to be at least a little prepped. But here, I had very little to go on. In a way that was refreshing — I got to feel that rush of discovery as it was happening, in the place itself, but I worry I missed out on some great details due to lack of context.

The LondonPass got me into the Abbey with no trouble at all. There was nearly no queue, but regardless, it was nice to just walk right on up and hand over the little card. Another thing that I liked very much: a free audioguide. These aren’t headphone sets, they’re these elongated things, looking vaguely like an old mobile phone. They hang around your neck incredibly awkwardly, especially if you have a bag of some kind. I had a camera bag, but it stayed shut most of the time. No photography allowed in the interior of the church.

Which is an enormous shame (though I completely understand and respect the reasons for it), because the place is just astonishing. It’s a dark church. Ordinarily I’d find that cold, unpleasant, but not here. Maybe it was the quire with its little lit lamps (one of my favorite places in the abbey). Maybe it was the sheer number of staff and volunteers cheerily helping people out. There certainly wasn’t much light coming through the windows on an overcast winter morning. But it was a close, comfortable feel, like this was a place travelled by people who knew and loved it. This is an important distinction, because in other cathedrals I’ve been to, this sense of close comfort is markedly absent.

And the chairs. So many, specifically set out for visitors. Listen, British museums and historical places are the most user-friendly I’ve ever visited. So I took myself a seat and listened to the little hanset around my neck.

I can’t talk about any of the non-English audio, but the English guide is excellent. In addition to the specific tour components, there are additional items you can listen to, like a welcome from the Dean of the abbey, or an explanation of the ritual of holy communion, which was really well done. There were extras covering the quire, including music, and — this is my favorite part — a video tour of the shrine of St Edward the Confessor, which is too edlicate to allow regular tourist traffic. The handset has a little window, maybe two or three centimeters diagonal, big enough to get a sense of the shrine.

Moving from the quire, you start to circulate around the abbey itself. I felt a bit rude, walking amongst all these graves; I’ve never liked the idea of touring the dead. Setting that aside, though, the stonework — and woodwork — on the tomb effigies was amazing. It’s easy to dismiss the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, which isn’t true at all. The sophistication in technique and artistry in a number of different disciplines leaves me, in today’s ready-made disposable modern world, in shame.

This is why I loved the Lady Chapel so much. I really wish I could have taken photos of it, but I’ll just have to leave you with this one, of the vaulted ceiling.

The vaulted ceiling of the Lady Chapel

Image from Freemysoul's Flickr. I really wish I could have taken photos. I stared at this ceiling for fifteen solid minutes. Every time I tried to look away I'd find a new detail.

The RAF chapel also called my attention, not just because it reveres those who fought in the Battle of Britain, but because there’s a small hole in the wall, caused by a German bomb. It’s covered with glass to keep the elements out, but it’s clearly a pocked hole, straight through the stone. It’s sobering. Mainland America was never under that kind of threat.

Continuing on, I stopped by the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots (situated very close together in death), and then Poet’s Corner. I hate to say it, but I was very cynical about Poet’s Corner. My university years were spent in the company of a lot of art students (theater and film, mainly), and we all go through our rabid literature fanboy phase. Well, not me, because I had a different rabid fandom, which made me special, and so I looked down on the kids who got all misty-eyed and artsy-arrogant over having visited Shakespeare’s memorial in the abbey.

Unfortunately, the feeling’s stuck, and I wandered by the markers of different actors and authors with a faint sense of irritation. It bugs me that I let those things live on so long, little petty things from fifteen years ago. Who does it benefit? No one. Certainly not me. Anyway. From the Corner it’s out to the Great Cloister. And aside from the fact that I love cloisters, photography was allowed there. So I have pictures to share.

The Great Cloister at Westminster Abbey

Now we're getting a feel for that specific green color of British grass. Yes, I know I sound mad, but I mean it. There's a very specific color to it. Or, rather, colour.

Cloister detail

Lookit me, gettin' all fancy with wide aperture and fast shutter speed! I took a photography class in undergrad, and it still serves me to this very day. And look at that green. I only hope your monitor is calibrated like mine.

Westminster Abbey, Great Cloister

I love the feeling this photo evokes. It's not sepiatone, but he colors are muted in a way that indicates age that doesn't necessarily correspond to the past. The post-production filter takes the image, mirrors it, and overlays it at high transparency.

I stopped briefly by the little snack shops they had on one side of the cloister and had a bit of breakfast, nothing big. It gave me time to just sit on the low stone wall and admire the cloister itself. Have I said that I love cloisters? I think I have.

With food eaten, I stopped briefly by the abbey’s museum, but I felt like time was beginning to slip by and I wanted to get some time at Parliament. So I moved to the final stop on the tour: the nave, where the west entrance is, and where regular worship is held. A service started while I was there. I felt a bit self-conscious, standing there as a tourist while people were attending formal service, but I let it go and instead stayed as out of the way as best I could while still seeing what I wanted to see. A little to the side was a table where anyone could write a prayer request, which the priests would fulfil at the shrine of St Edward the Confessor in the next few days. I can’t remember if there was a charge for it — nothing obnoxious, just a donation box — but I know I left a five pound note just on general principle, to help maintain the church.

Once outside, I was treated to as much Gothic architecture as I could possibly stand. I love Gothic architecture. I suppose a lot of people do. I’m not a fan of modernist architecture, of form over function. I’ve had enough poured concrete and cinderblock to last me twenty lifetimes. I understand it’s expensive as hell to use building elements that have some kind of detailed design in them, as that calls for expert craftsmanship, but come on.

North entry of Westminster Abbey

I can only imagine how many decades it took for the masons to do this. Yeah, I said decades. This is the north entrance of the abbey.

Outside the nave of Westminster Abbey

Look at this detail. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to do detail shots of the work on the nave's exterior. I must have been really, really tired.

Westminster Palace

From Gothic, to Neo-Gothic. When are we going to stop exalting the concrete box and its accents of glass and steel? The Gherkin's a good start, but we need more progress on this.

From here, it was a short jaunt to Westminster Palace, or Parliament. Halfway there I gave directions to a Brazilian tourist; we met halfway linguistically, me with my Spanish and her with her Portuguese. She wanted to know if the abbey was where Prince William was married, and if the place I’d just come from was the abbey. She kept thinking Parliament was the abbey. I can’t entirely fault her on that, either. At any rate, our exchange was charming and a lot of fun, and adds to the list of places I’ve visited where people stop and ask me directions. Maybe I’ve got a friendly demeanor? Maybe I give off this sense of I know what I’m doing? (I find the last statement hard to believe.)

Next: Parliament, and probably the Museum of London. Now for some sleep.


About incognitiously

A published author and a produced playwright, I'm someone who spends most of my time thinking about stories, writing them, reading them, watching them or hearing them. In short, I make stuff up, unless the truth is even better. And even then it's an iffy proposition. Currently researching the dialogic nature of transmedia storytelling for a Doctorate of Creative Industries at the Queensland University of Technology. View all posts by incognitiously

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