Token Tourist Trip

In August challenge
August 6, 2009

A red bus, black cabs, the Millennium Wheel, Big Ben – why yes guvnor, I spent today in Merrie Olde London town! In fact, this is the reason that I ended the day feeling hot, exhausted and slightly ripped-off.

I went to Westminster Abbey today, the Queen’s own church. Despite living in London most of my life, had never been before. So, one thing I didn’t know: the entry fee for this place of worship is £15. Which immediately made me understand what people mean when they say “London is an expensive city to visit”.

Having ‘done’ Westminster Abbey as a tourist, my advice if you want to go would be to attend a service on a Sunday morning: free, plus you’d get to see the building actually operating as it’s intended to, rather than as a game of “how many tourists can we cram into a very tiny chapel to stare for 30 seconds at the burial place of Mary Queen of Scots?”

I mean, a lot of very famous people are buried there. Or at least memorialised there. In places, it’s literally hard to squeeze between the tombs to get through to look at the other tombs. Elizabeth I is there, Chaucer is there, Edward the Confessor is there, Charles Dickens is there. You get the drift. And the architecture is very beautiful. This is the ceiling of Mary Queen of Scots’ chapel:

It’s crammed full of people, though. People who all have their ears pressed to their audio guides, which are included in the £15 price, but which I nonetheless decided to forgo because I don’t like someone else telling me where to direct my attention. And because I’m the kind of overeducated snob who goes “I don’t need an audioguide, this is a good opportunity to practice my Latin”. (And only discover from Wikipedia when I get home that I’d totally mistranslated and that woman was Anne of Cleves and not the king’s cousin after all.)

The funny thing about those audioguides is that it means that some tombs and chapels are full of people standing around with vacant expressions, trying to look at whatever it is they’re being directed to look at, while others are almost empty. I liked that. I headed mostly for the empty ones and enjoyed the relative quiet. I liked the sound of this woman (and also the spelling):

Many children of either sort! Died at the age of 90! (Unless I’ve got my Latin wrong again and it’s actually 23 or something.)

I also enjoyed the part where any of us who wanted to were invited for a “short service of prayer” into the Chapel of Edward the Confessor, which isn’t open to the public. I can’t understand why more people didn’t do this – out of probably 700-800 people in the building, only 15 of us went to the (five-minute-long) service. I mean, I’m not a Christian, but I’m happy to sit in a lovely ancient chapel and agree with the sentiment “God bless the earth with peace” and so on. It makes me think that a lot of people are probably very frightened of religion. Or maybe they don’t want to be reminded about God when they’re on their holidays.

Or perhaps it’s the way the Abbey organises things, with set times for “tourists” and “worshippers”, that makes visitors feel resentful of being reminded that they’re not just looking at a lot of lovely memorials to famous people but are in a house of prayer. In my memory of French and Spanish cathedrals I’ve been to, they just carry right on praying, hymn-singing, incense-burning around the tourists, and expect the visitors to be quiet when it gets to the important bits. I like that more, I think – the brief service I attended felt like the most genuine part of my visit. Why *not* do away with the audioguides and just say “this is a house of worship. If you are not taking part in the prayer, please move quietly and remain absolutely silent”? Because you wouldn’t be able to charge people £15 to enter then, I suppose.

The most quiet, peaceful part is the Nave, which you come to right at the end of walking around the Abbey, by which time I was quite desperate to leave. But I stopped in time to read Livingstone’s (as in “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”) stone:

“For thirty years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize the native races, to explore the undiscovered secrets, and abolish the desolating slave trade of central Africa where, with his last words, he wrote: ‘All I can say in my solitude is, may heaven’s rich blessing come down on everyone – American, English, Turk – who will help to heal this open sore of the world.”

Which… well, like the Abbey, there are bits of that one can really appreciate (abolishing the slave trade for example), and bits that are a lot less palatable. But at least the epitaph can be partially excused for having been written more than 100 years ago. I’d go to the Abbey again, like I say, on a Sunday morning, but otherwise I cannot recommend it.

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