Throughout my life, I’ve experienced a physical tingly sensation that runs down from the top of my head whenever I’m in the presence of something, or someone, with a strong spirit. There were tingles aplenty on our tour of Westminster Abbey.
I appreciated how the religious church-keepers do what they can to remind the stream of visitors (1.8 million in 2016, more than 5,000 a day) that this is not simply a museum. There is no photography allowed. Once an hour, visitors are asked to stop their touring and pause for a moment of prayer led from the abbey’s main altar. The day we were there, sumptuous yellow-and-white fresh flower bouquets added warmth.
We got our tickets through London Walks, and came through a side entrance reserved for tour groups. Our guide, who looked like a well-aged blonde version of British designer Mary Quant, was beguiling but frustrating to the “just get to the point” Americans in our group, who broke off to explore on their own. She engaged in what I came to think of as Socratic tour-guiding: asking questions to elicit answers and only after the correct answers came forward would she unlock her vault of knowledge.
Those who stuck with her heard how the abbey began as a monastery, and has been rebuilt, rejigged and renovated many times in its 1,000-plus years of existence.
To say history is everywhere is a laughable understatement. We came into the main church via another side door, and our first stop was to view the coronation chair used in every English monarch coronation since the 14th century. We paused at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an in-floor tomb plaque over the body of a soldier killed in the First World War, that’s perennially surrounded by a bushy border of silk poppies. It is the only such tomb at the Abbey where walk-overs are forbidden and it has become tradition, in modern times, for royal brides to leave their bouquets there in tribute after their Westminster Abbey weddings.
There are thousands of tombs or memorial plaques cramming every wall and floor. Some have their own side chapels. Behind the main altar is the entombment, and shrine, to St. Edward the Confessor, so honoured by King Henry III, under whose reign and resources the original 11th-century church was expanded and rebuilt in Gothic grandeur in the 13th century.
I had read about the many monarchs buried at Westminster, and about areas such as Poets’ Corner, where writers and playwrights are memorialized. But there’s something about being right there, about realizing, dear heavens, there lie Chaucer’s bones (or the dust from those bones), undisturbed for 617 years. Many buried in the abbey in earlier times are there because they were aristocratic or wealthy but many others are honoured because of achievements: actors, engineers, scientists. After our formal tour was over, we somewhat sneakily looped back for a second walk-around and discovered many more corners and memorials.
The biggest surprise was the “Lady Chapel”, built as an extension to the main church in the early 16th century by King Henry VII.
It is bursting with light and colour, spectacular in its original design and made more colourful by the pendants hung above seating stalls for the current members of the Order of the Bath, an appointed honour established by King Charles I in 1725.
Later in our trip, we came across another church also within the City of Westminster, not nearly so grand with age and history as Westminster Abbey, but also a head-tingly kind of place that memorializes many people close to my heart.
St. Paul’s Church at Covent Garden is known as the “Actors’ Church”. It was built in the 17th century, designed by Inigo Jones who the BBC classifies as “the first notable English architect, responsible for introducing the classical architecture of Rome and the Italian Renaissance to Britain.” Over the years, memorial plaques to theatre writers and perfomers have beed added to its walls.
The place is still an active parish church and hosts a resident cat who happened to be napping on a chair by the altar during our visit. Compared to the thousands thronging Westminster, it is a quiet spot, with perhaps a half-dozen visitors in the church when we dropped by. There are no tickets or fees, just a subtle donation box at the entrance.
Among the famous actors, directors, playwrights, and others of theatrical note memorialized here were a few connected to my days as publicist at Canada’s Stratford Festival, in a people-I-knew-knew-these-folks kind of way. Sybil Thorndike was the great-aunt to Stratford actor Lucy Peacock; the late Brian Bedford, actor and director, knew playwright Noël Coward; and actor Christopher Plummer spent many a gaudy night with his great friend Peter O’Toole.
All the souls who roamed before us: whether memorialized in a grand abbey, or in a simpler church, I and my tingles were happy during our London adventure to witness, connect, and bring them to life for a moment, once more.
Main photo: Westminster Abbey main entrance by Kelley Teahen