Westminster Abbey review
Everyone who comes to London should visit Westminster Abbey... simple as that. It's the second best building in the capital after Parliament, and contains the single greatest room in the Henry VII chapel. Unfortunately it's also bloody expensive considering that it's a church, but I suppose even God has his bills to pay.
You definitely need to listen to the audio-guide all the way around otherwise you'll miss a lot of interesting things, but I also recommend getting a good book and a map beforehand, because the guy on the audio-guide (Jeremy Irons) inexplicably misses out a lot of stuff. When you walk in the front door you will see a lot of tombs for famous science men and composers, for example, (men like Darwin and Elgar), but none of them warrant even a mention on the tape. How can you not mention someone like Darwin? (Maybe the church still hasn't forgiven him. They sure do hold their grudges a long time!)
Before you get to standout tombs you have to trawl through a few corridors containing 20th century politicians -- people like Lloyd George, Attlee, Baldwin, MacDonald, Wilson and... Ernest Bevin (how did he get in here?). Churchill gets a plum spot by the door, but you can see who had the biggest egos -- Charles Fox and Henry Campbell-Bannerman -- because their tombs are bigger than all the other ones put together. There don't seem to be any more burials after Wilson though. I wonder why that is?
As you go through the Abbey it's interesting to see who gets the biggest slab. The explorer David Livingstone has a huge one slap-bang in the middle of the Nave, whilst others just get a little dinner mat of to the side. I suppose it all came down to whether you had some money or friends in high places. In some spaces it's almost like walking on a marble carpet. You'll be stepping on bedspread-sized tablets coloured in silver and gold, whilst other ones will have a diamond-shaped slab with their names rubbed off, shined up by the shoes of centuries of sightseers.
The statues around the side are all good enough for the National Gallery. These aren't your usual headstones -- some of them are ten-feet effigies and span two floors in height -- and these are for people we don't even know! I don't think you had to achieve much to get buried here at the beginning. If you were best mates with the priest then they'd find you a spot. But these days they can't even find space for Richard III. It's all protected now and unalterable which I think is a great shame, because what is this place, if it's not an ongoing record of our great and good? Did British history die with Churchill?
It's when you reach the golden screen in the centre of the Nave that you'll start to see how great this place is. It might not have the golden ceilings of St. Paul's Cathedral but there's a lot more atmosphere in this place because it's so cramped and gloomy. I like my churches to be dark and moody. And when you pass under the central screen you'll see one of the most impressive sights in the whole of London -- the dark chestnut coloured wood and stalls of the Quire, with the golden altar and ancient Cosmati pavement behind.
Just have a look up at that ceiling -- it's almost as tall as most buildings are long! You'll get your first good look at a stained glass window here as well as the light floods down through the smoggy smell of incense onto the hundred-strong throng of a tourist crowd. We are all just standing around with our audioguide against our ears, staring at this scene. When was the last time you spent ten-minutes staring at a floor? This is where a ten centuries-worth of kings and queens have been crowned and princes have been married. I could have done with a bit more Handel on the headphones because when it drums up into "Zadok the Priest" you get a bit choked up! You know the song that I mean... the Coronation tune (and I don't mean Coronation Street). They strike that up when you're standing by the altar and if you don't feel something stirring then there must be something wrong with you. (I'm getting very patriotic in my old age.)
After that you pass round the side of the altar where you can see all the beautiful little chapels and statues. Don't forget to look inside the chapel of St. John the Baptist, because that's one of my favourite places in the Abbey. I think the entrance doorway to this place looks like oldest thing in London (not the chapel itself, but just inside the doorway). Do you agree with me? On the opposite side to the chapels you will see the tombs of some our most famous kings -- men like Edward III and I (Hammer of the Scots), Henry III and V (the Battle of Agincourt) and Richard II (Peasant's Revolt). Right in the centre is the tomb of our only kingly saint: Edward the Confessor. This guy dates back 1,000 years to before the reign of William the Conqueror, and he's been sleeping in that same spot since 1269! Unfortunately the tomb itself is too precious to risk letting the tourist hordes near it, so you can only view it from afar. (The audio-guide provides a little video of what it's like inside.)
At the very end of the Abbey is the single greatest room in the whole of London -- no other one even comes close, not even the State Rooms inside Buckingham Palace. It's called the Henry VII Chapel and contains the graves of Henry, Edward VI (Henry VIII's teenage son), Elizabeth I (Spanish Armada), Mary I (Bloody Mary) and James I. Round the side of the chapel you'll find the tombs of Mary Queen of Scots and the ultimate mother-in-law from hell, Margaret Beaufort.
Remember to have a look inside the RAF Chapel as well because there's a flagstone on the floor which marks the original burial site of Oliver Cromwell, before Charles II dug up his bones and hanged them at Tyburn.
After that comes the bit that every tourist wants to see -- Poets' Corner. This place is always crawling with tourists and is home to more than forty burials and sixty memorials to the likes of Chaucer, Keats, Kipling, Dickens, Tennyson, Shelley, Eliot, Lord Byron, Dylan Thomas... the list just goes on and on. William Shakespeare is there in spirit (his body is buried at Stratford on Avon). The only big name that I would have liked to have seen was Tolkien. I noticed that CS Lewis was there, so why not Tolkein? Maybe we should start a petition up.
The audio-guide will come to an abrupt end at this point and you will have to hand it in, but there is still plenty more to see outside. You can walk around the cloisters and the gardens and check out the Chapter House. They've got a little museum filled with funeral effigies of our kings and queens as well. After that the route will take you back inside the Abbey for a final look at the Coronation Chair.
And that's it! Twenty quid very well spent.
Guest – Hi Craig! Have been reading a couple of your reviews and I really enjoyed your honest down to earth witty comments. Keep going. Regards Mary
Admin – Thanks for that Mary, I'm glad you like them (it's nice to know at least one person takes the time to read them!). Craig
Guest – Hi Craig, great website! Using your itinerary for our upcoming London visit! Thanks! A question: Admission to Westminster Abbey is 20 Pounds. Does this cover Choral Evenson at 5pm on weekday? Site says 20 Pounds for Choral Evensong. Many thanks!
Admin – Whoops, you've spotted a mistake there -- I'll get that fixed. The choral Evensong service is totally free, but you only get to see the area described in my Evensong review. It's basically just the altar area and the Quire (which is actually the best bit of the Abbey), plus some statues down the lefthand side. But if you want to see the entire Abbey, like in this review, then you have to stump up an admission fee. Personally I think it's worth seeing the whole thing, but the Evensong is well worth doing as well. Bear in mind that even if you pay the admission fee they will still kick you out at closing time. You will then have to wait outside for a while before they let you in for the Evensong.
Guest – Hi! Love your site. We are using your recommendations for our one day in London. How much time do we need for a tour of Westminster? We want to be able to come out and get in line for Evensong. Thanks!
Admin – Hello. Normally I’d recommend two hours to do it properly. If you’ve only got one day then you can do it in 1½ hours. But if you’re staying for the Evensong afterwards then I’d try and rush around it an 1 hour, because you’re also going to be sitting in the church for another hour after that. If it was me I would probably just do the evensong on it’s own and use the extra time I saved for something else. You’ll still get to see the best of the abbey during the evensong (especially if you get a good seat near the Quire). The big difference is that you won’t be allowed to wander around and look at the memorials.
I’ve been here before…
Events at Westminster Abbey…
|Religious events in June|
|Religious events in July|
|Religious events in August|