Westminster Abbey with Procession, by Canaletto, 1749.
While in London this past June, Hubby and I of course visited Westminster Abbey. Along with Big Ben and the Tower of London, it's in the triumvirate of "must see" tourist sites.
I wanted to show it to him because of a magical day I spent there back in 1996. Unfortunately, the best laid plans and all that. This day was cold, rainy where before it had been beautiful sunny, strolling weather. I remember I walked the length of the Thames that day - all the way to the Tate, past the Rodin sculpture of The Burghers of Calais.
Where before I had the whole day before me to explore every nook and cranny of the abbey, this visit saw us rushing about like mad tourists on a 3-hour visa. We hadn't kept good track of the time, and so were left with the prospect of trying to see a centuries-old cathedral the size of three city blocks in an hour. We couldn't try again tomorrow - we were leaving tomorrow. Sigh. A short visit is better than nothing I suppose. It made me sad because I wanted Hubby to experience Westminster the same way I had - slowly, gradually, letting the grandiose beauty and weighty history settle over you like a warm comforter. Instead we tried to see as much of the history, the stony tombs and smell the earthy granite and wet earth of the inner Cloisters before the security guards could shoo us out. I remember we searched frantically to see the shrine to Sir Isaac Newton (Hubby is a physicist) before realizing the golden monstrosity right before our eyes was actually it. Kind of a letdown after so much "treasure" hunting.
I had first visited Westminster in April 1996. I was down from Glasgow where I was sharing a flat with two friends, playing the expatriate card until the money ran out. Visiting my friend Carter who was living in Piccadilly Circus in a tiny two-room apartment above a porn theater and a butcher. Just down the alley from the main square. We'd leave his building and see dead rabbits hanging by their ears next to a window full of purple dildoes. The red neon would seep into his apartment at night when the lights were out giving the place a bordello-like air. The LOUDEST apartment I've ever visited, because not only could you hear all the foot traffic from Piccadilly, but there was a major market in this alley every day and so at 4am on the dot, merchants would bang together pipes to form their stalls. Between the red neon and the banging, I didn't sleep.
My friend shared the place with his Japanese girlfriend whose father was a vice president at Nissan or something. She lived in Covent Garden and bought all her clothes at full price designer shops and had her shoes made to fit. When I asked where she got the fabulous pair of laceup shoes she was wearing, she replied they were handmade in Florence for only $1000. For someone who had worked two jobs for a year to spend six months traveling the UK, this was beyond extravagant.
A highlight of this trip was going to Westminster. Carter and girlfriend worked at World Bank, and while they have lived in London almost 2 years, they had never visited and had no interest in starting the tourist thing now. So I was left to my own devices which I preferred anyway. I remember being nervous I wouldn't be able to handle the Tube or even find the place. I needn't have worried - the Tube is so easy a child could handle it (once you get by which branches are closed on which days). And Westminster is so huge there's no mistaking it.
Two enormous brown towers rising from the banks of the Thames - so heavily garreted as to not look even real. Like the gargoyles you see living on the tops of churches decided to make the most of their free time instead of just sitting around. Carving out little curlicued garrets in the dark of night - beautiful things that emerge with sunrise. I was astounded by how large it was. And how old. Remembering it now, it actually *was* the first cathedral I had ever seen up close. I was awestruck.
Going inside was even better. The abbey is so large you literally feel as if your whole world has been reduced to miniature. Every footfall echoes. Every touch of my hand on stone tombs or wooden rails brought history forth when I thought of the hundreds of thousands who had walked this walk and touched these things before me. Purposely I took no map, wanting to discover on my own. Here was the tomb of William Gladstone the great statesman. There is one of an actual knight, clutching a sword to his chest, buried in 1152. With each room I entered I let the history wash over me. Overwhelming, but in a fantastic way.
What I liked most was how much I learned by wandering. Entering one room, I found a great tomb encased in marble with a golden roof and black stone pillars. Almost as if the tomb itself was a throne. Here was Queen Mary Tudor buried underneath Queen Elizabeth I (her half-sister). You mean they were buried on TOP of one another? But they HATED each other! I was floored to discover this. In another room, up high, sat the throne on which every king and queen of England had been crowned since the year 700. A simple wooden chair. Heavily scarred by years of graffiti because before people realized its importance to history, it had been used in the school for boys as a classroom chair. It was pure function before they realized it just might be priceless. I was left wondering who had carved what into its mangled arms before they became king. Picturing Henry VIII carving "H's" when he should've been studying his Latin.
Wandering in another part of the Abbey I discovered Poet's Corner. Here were memorials to all the greats: Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Yeats, the Brownings, and of course, Shakespeare. A scowling bust of William Blake stared down at me. I felt as if I'd reached my Mecca. My place of worship. So many memorials to so many important authors. So many of their words molded and shaped my writing and love of reading today. I felt as if I had to sit down right then and take in the enormity of it all. It was so overwhelming the only thing I could think to do was write about it.
As I found a seat in a pew and pulled out my journal, a man with a soft, echoing voice announced it was now noon. At noon, the abbey bells toll in memory for all those lost in war. If we could please maintain silence for the next 15 minutes we would honor those forever lost. And then the bells began to toll. Large and looming. Booming sounds full of wholeness and clarity and longing. It was stunningly beautiful. And for the next 15 minutes, as I sat recording my thoughts, the only sounds heard in that massive place were soft echoing footfalls. People tiptoeing through history. Muffled whispers which ceased the minute they were uttered when the speakers realized how much sound carried in this thunderous abbey of wood and stone.
I tried to take it all in. To breathe the history into my pores. To feel the vibrations of voices past pass through me. The kings, queens, scientists and statesmen, lords and ladies, knights and monks. All of whom had worshipped here or been crowned here or been buried here. It was unfathomable. Listening for the past. I'll never forget what it felt like. It must be what "being in the moment" feels like because for those 15 minutes there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be.
Monday, February 2, 2009
Westminster Abbey with Procession, by Canaletto, 1749.