London, Day 1: Westminster Abbey

A few days after my day trip to Canterbury, I took the train to London for 24 hours of sightseeing. There is plenty to see in London.

I have found in the past, when faced with limited time in an unfamiliar place, it’s a good idea to identify one or two “must see” places to visit, prioritize others, and let serendipity rule. I spent a lot of years keeping a schedule, but when you are traveling for leisure and enjoyment, then it really is “about the journey,” and secondarily, the destination. If you have to stress to fit all fifteen sights into your available time, then you’re not doing it right. Prioritize, then relax and enjoy the places, people, and experiences. The places that don’t fit can wait.

It took a while to get to the train to London. We were staying in Bean, and the train station was in Longfield, a couple of kilometers away. As fate would have it, I chose to go to London on a day when a major thoroughfare closed, and the country roads, which required squeezing just to get by an oncoming car, were burdened by an entire lane standing still with cars attempting to go around the highway blockage. The fifteen minute trip took an hour and a half. I missed the train (by two) and waited an additional 45 minutes for the next. The actual train trip took about 40 minutes. It was fortunate I had started early.

The train brought me to Victoria Station, which is a major transportation hub in London. I sat down with a cup of coffee (a recurring theme these days) to look at my map. I continue to carry paper maps, much to the amusement of my daughter. I like them because the visible area is larger and gives more context for finding one’s way, but I use my Google Maps app also. It’s useful for finding a particular location, as opposed to scanning the paper map a gazillion times. The app will also mark a route from wherever you are to where you want to go. Too bad there’s not an app like that for life.

I wanted to visit Westminster Abbey again, one of my favorite places on the planet. It is saturated with history and stories. I intended to spend only an hour there because I have been there before (see “Westminster Part 1” & “Westminster Part 2” — but I ended up spending four. The audio tour is very good and well worth the small fee.

The Abbey was established at this location by a grant of land from King Edgar, who ruled from 957 to 975 A.D. After Edgar, King Edward funded the church and monastery in 1065 that became Westminster Abbey. Monastic churches were known as “minsters,” and this became known as “Westminster” to distinguish it from St. Paul’s on the eastern side of the Thames River, the “Eastminster.” Edward lived an exemplary life, and was buried (1066) in the church he helped build. After Edward’s death, the Pope canonized him, and St. Edward the Confessor was transferred to a new shrine within Westminster, which now became a place of pilgrimage. The shrine has become delicate with age, but the last time I was there, communion was still given within the shrine during the day to a limited number of people, “first come, first serve.” I was able to participate in communion, and it is humbling to realize that you are there, sharing a ritual in common with a thousand years of history.

During the reign of King Henry VIII, the monasteries of England and Wales were dissolved, the result of the Reformation and King Henry’s policies. Clerical communities continued to live and worship there through the upheaval, but their status was uncertain. Finally, in 1560, Queen Elizabeth I, once again the problem-solver, re-established the Abbey as a “Royal Peculiar,” a church outside the Church of England, answerable to the sovereign only, and to be governed by a group of clergy (Dean and Chapter) whose mission was the daily worship of God. As part of the same action, the Queen provided for the education of forty scholars and a foundation to provide organist and choristers for the daily worship.

I followed the tour’s path to the North Ambulatory, where Queen Elizabeth I’s tomb is. Elizabeth’s tomb rests on top of Mary Tudor’s tomb, which is unmarked, whereas Elizabeth’s has a sculpted image on top. Mary was Catholic. Elizabeth, who succeeded Mary, was Protestant. I have always admired Elizabeth, a brilliant, successful monarch in difficult circumstances, who brought prosperity and peace to her people. I believe that she would have chosen to tolerate Catholicism, but was forced to repress it because of the constant plots to remove her in favor of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. This would have meant a return to the violent repression of Protestantism. Under “Bloody Mary” Tudor, Protestants were tortured and burned at the stake.

The inscription on the tomb of Elizabeth and Mary was this (translated from the Latin):

“Partners in both throne and tomb

Here rest we, two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary,

In the hope of one resurrection.”

We have lived with separation of Church and State for so long that we have forgotten the havoc wreaked by mixing politics and religion.

I spent some time in the North Ambulatory, the Lady Chapel, and the South Ambulatory, where Mary, Queen of Scots, is entombed, although she never ruled in England. Her tomb was built by her son, James VI of Scotland, who became also James I of England after Elizabeth died in 1603. He included a tomb for Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, who was the mother of Lord Darnley, who married Queen Mary, and his great-great grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. You can’t tell the players without a program.

You would think that the chapel is called the Lady Chapel because of all the women – Elizabeth, Mary Tudor, Mary Queen of Scots, Margaret Douglas, and Margaret Beaufort – but it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and was, in fact, commissioned by Henry VII, who is entombed with his queen, Elizabeth of York, in the Chapel itself. It is a gorgeous, spectacular structure, with large windows creating a light and airy atmosphere, and towering walls, culminating in an absolutely beautiful roof with “fan vaulting.” It is practically a church of its own, with quire stalls, and enclosed aisles on the north and south. Buried beneath the floor of the Lady Chapel are other kings and queens: Edward VI, James I, Charles II, William and Mary, Queen Anne and George II. There are names and dates on floor stones, but no monuments.

I walked past some of the other tombs to “Poet’s Corner.” Geoffrey Chaucer, author of “The Canterbury Tales,” was entombed here in 1400 AD, not because of his literary accomplishments, but because he served the King as Clerk of the Works during the construction of the Palace of Westminster. It was only after 200 years, when Chaucer’s literary works were more appreciated, and the nearby entombment of Edmund Spenser in 1599 that the Poet’s Corner tradition was established, and it continues to the present.

I made a point of visiting the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton, which is on the right side of the screen separating the nave and the quire. Both times that I have been to Westminster Abbey, I have met physicists and engineers who have come here from far away, specifically to pay homage to Sir Isaac. They feel a real connection to him, and also seem humbled by that connection.

There are many more famous people entombed or memorialized here, but there are interesting non-human elements:

The Chapter House, built around 1246, was the place where the monks met. It has bench seating with a central seat for the head of the monastery. Senior-most monks sat closest to, newcomers furthest from, the central seat. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries (c. 1540,) the room was used for meetings of Parliament, and then as a store room for state documents. The state records were removed in 1859, and the room opened to the public in 1872.

Britain’s oldest door, constructed in 1050s for St. Edward the Confessor’s Westminster. It is made of broad, thick wooden planks, probably oak, about six feet tall with an iron plate and padlock.

The Coronation Chair was commissioned by King Edward I (the Confessor) in 1296 to hold the “Stone of Scone” from Scotland. The Stone filled the space below the seat, probably (my speculation) to symbolize the subjugation of Scotland to England. The audio guide was too tactful to explain. The Chair has been used in every coronation since 1308. England’s relationship with Scotland has changed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and the Stone was returned to Scotland in 1996, but will return to Westminster for future coronations.

It was now early afternoon. Sarah had recommended Covent Garden, a collection of shops and restaurants near the theater district. I also had to find a place to stay that night. I took the Underground to Covent Garden, but skipped the shops. There is nothing like English tweed and wool in tartan plaids to put me in a buying mood, but they would be little use in Bahrain, and it would be months before I return to the U.S. I did pass a souvenir shop, whose window held red phone booth banks, plates with the Queen’s portrait, and my favorite (I almost bought it,) the bobble-head Queen. Schlepping your own luggage acts as a damper on buying.

I stopped at a small French restaurant, Le Garrick, probably named for David Garrick, a well-known actor of the 18th century. This was not the French restaurant that Sarah had recommended, which I failed to locate, but it was still charming, and I had a heavenly bean and pork sausage cassoulet. The weather was warm enough that I sat at a table outside and watched the passers by, always entertaining. I used the time to find a place to stay for the night: “Accommodation London Bridge.” It was a few blocks to the Tower Bridge, meaning roughly downtown, and it was only $78.00, which for downtown London is dirt cheap.

I wasn’t in the mood for another historical site, especially since I planned on the Tower of London the next day, and Westminster Abbey had so much to absorb – historical overload is a real hazard in London. I used the next couple of hours finding out how to buy last-minute tickets, and then waiting in a line of hopefuls for “The Book of Mormon.” Alas, it was not to be – there were no cancellations and the show was sold out. (Recently, I checked to see when tickets for “Hamilton” would be available in London – summer, 2019. Plan your trip now.) I considered going up in “The Ring,” but it moves very slowly, it’s costly, and it seemed like a better idea than reality. I passed. Maybe another time.

Dusk was moving in. I decided to call it a day and see what Accommodation London Bridge held in store. Sometimes they are what they promise, and sometimes not, but this turned out to be a real deal. My room was a single, very small, but brand new. I had a twin bed, a private bathroom with a shower, a small closet, a small desk and chair, and a TV (I would guess 30 inch screen.) I emphasize small because it was, even by European standards, but very comfortable. Yes, the sheets were very clean. I had a snuggly white duvet (this was November in England,) the heat worked like a champ, and the light switches were right by the bed, where there was a reading light. The inn’s front door was by the desk, which was manned 24 hours (although I didn’t go down and check at three a.m.) The desk person was very helpful about local cafes and a small grocery store, and how to navigate to the Tower of London the next morning. I settled in for the evening, to write in my journal and read about the Tower.

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