Choral Mass, at the Chapel Royal review
So once again I find myself in church. I think I go to more masses than religious people do. But this one's well worth a visit -- the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace. That's the place where Henry VIII used to pray with Anne Boleyn, when he still thought her worth having. It's his own private chapel in the heart of the palace, and opens up to the public every Sunday for free (when there's a mass on) because you can't charge people to pray. Oh goody, you're thinking... does that mean I can pretend to be religious and do a bit of sightseeing for nothing? That is what you're thinking, right? (Shame on you!) But let's be honest... that's what we're all thinking. Well the answer is... you're not supposed to. At least, that's what the guard told me when I asked him this morning (with a wink wink). If you want to see the rest of the palace then you're supposed to buy an entry ticket. But more on that later...
It's worth turning up an hour early for a stroll along the river. If you go down far enough then you can get a good look at the back of the palace and the ornamental gardens through the fancy iron railings. If you walk across the face of the palace to the lefthand side, then you can ramble through acres of wild gardens, and up the side of the palace to Home Park (the name of the park which stretches all the way to Kingston). There is a huge man-made lake and fountain out the back -- all of which is totally free to see. The only bit that you have to pay to enter is the ornamental gardens, which you can see through the fence.
Reception can be found down the lefthand side of the palace. Just walk up the long drive and take a left before the gatehouse. Then turn right towards the cop's cabin and barrier. Reception is right next to that. If you tell the nice lady that you are here to attend the mass then she will point you past the barrier -- and you are in for free! I must say that their security set-up is pretty rubbish. You are basically free to make your own way to the chapel (unescorted). Once you are inside the palace you have a free reign to go wherever you like. I don't see how they can stop you looking around for nothing. No one bothers to look at your ticket. But it wouldn't be a very Christian thing to do though, would it. You can't attend a mass and then start sinning five minutes later. That's going to get you a one-way ticket to hell. And if someone did happen to stop you and ask for your ticket then you'd probably end up in the Tower of London. So my advice is this... don't blame me if you get arrested. You deserve to get caught for being so tight!
Even if you don't see the rest of the palace, the Chapel is well worth visiting in its own right. It's a very small and intimate space, all deep reds, dark blues and chestnut coloured wood. The ceiling is just about the most fantastic roof in England (no joke). It's all golden stars and buttresses, royal shields and cherubims. Unfortunately you're not allowed to take any photographs in there, so you'll just have to take my word for it. But you can trust me on this -- I never lie about ceilings. High up behind your head is the Royal balcony where Henry himself used to sit, lording it over the people below.
About 10 minutes before it starts they will start letting people through to the pews and if you're lucky you'll get to sit in the Quire. These are the side-facing stalls behind the choir. It's all very warmly lit with yellow lamplights. They seem to separate all the men from the women though -- men on the left and women on the right -- so you might get split up from your family. But don't worry, because they've also got a load of front-facing pews behind. Whilst all of this is going on the organ is playing songs up in the balcony. Then the lights dim down and in come the choir and priests.
I always find that there's something very weird about a church service. I found myself standing in a room with 50 people today, chanting about a bloke that doesn't exist. I actually tried to listen to the readings but they made no sense whatsoever, it was like a cryptic tale from yesteryear, spoken in words that no one ever uses. Judging by the looks on most people's faces, I don't think a single thought of God went through their heads either. What do you actually learn at these things? If you're not there to learn about God then what exactly is the point? It's just an excuse for a sing-song every Sunday. My head was filled with other things -- thoughts of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn sitting up in the balcony. It's quite something to imagine them sitting in this exact same room, looking down on the same seats we're sitting in. It was probably quite similar to how it looks today. The organ is still playing, the boys are still singing, and the candles still flicker. Except these days they are all electric light bulbs.
It's quite easy to get lost in your thoughts with all the sounds around your head.
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