Every tour book, advice guide, and review blog warns tourists to arrive early and even so, be prepared for a very long wait to enter Westminster Abbey. Some reviewers claimed to stand in line for an hour, or not quite, because they left before they were allowed inside.
David and I ended up at the Abbey just out sheer necessity. We had several hours until Wicked began, and an afternoon with nothing else planned. We were ready for an hour staring at the old stone walls.
However, 12:30 on a Friday afternoon in November is apparently not a busy time at the venerable church. The line to enter the building was approximately three people long. The audio guide kindly tells people to “keep walking” through narrow points and bottleneck passages, but I found I could linger as long as I wanted around the tombs of Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and St Edward the Confessor. Except St. Edward the Confessor’s tomb is on a dais behind King Henry III and a couple other medieval kings. I just had to stare at the tombs in a circular shape, and know the top of the platform was built for the saintly king seven centuries ago.
I love to visit cemeteries and read gravestones, but I try to avoid walking across the graves. It feels disrespectful to me. Yet, here in the abbey, every floor stone is lined with writing. Under the floors are vaults where the former inhabitants and a few national heroes are put for their final resting place. It is impossible to walk through it without walking over graves. I soon did get over the feeling of disrespect because there was so much to read!
I am glad the crowds were manageable, because then I could stop to inspect the stones. Every nook, every inch of floor, and most walls, are filled with tombstones, memorials, markers, commemorations. Charles Darwin, whose plain tombstone simply lists his name and dates, lies a few feet from Ralph Vaughn Williams, whose smaller and newer stone also lists only his name and dates. It was fun to go through and see who I recognised.
Dukes, duchesses,non-monarchs of the royal family. All the names who once would have been well-known now are written in Latin in forgotten alcoves skipped over on the audio tour. But at least when I stumbled in them by accident, I knew they were important people at one time. They have elaborate marble tombs and memorials; statues and likenesses. Gilt or painted decorations.
The floor is also covered with stones, many worn smooth from hundreds of years of monks, worshippers, and tourists. Abbots, organist and choirmasters, headmasters of the school choir, the monks themselves, and even people who worked for the Abbey in any way, were all buried here. Their stones line the cloister and the halls.
600 years ago, a poet and royal bureaucrat rented rooms in the Abbey. When he died, as was customary for their tenants, he was buried in the Abbey. As it turns out this was not just any poet, but Geoffrey Chaucer. Instead of becoming a forgotten book-keeper, he became the first person buried in Poet’s Corner, and immortalised by his Canterbury Tales. Poet’s corner was expanded to included other artists. Now Rudyard Kipling, George Frederick Handel and Laurence Olivier, among others, rest near the former scribe.
In one alcove is a memorial to James Watt, not buried in the Abbey, but commemorated by a “grateful king for his work on the steam engine.” I had recently been studying his steam engines in museums in Scotland, and visiting what remains of his house near Edinburgh, so I was pretty excited to recognise his name.
The grandest tomb in the Abbey does not belong to a king, although George III tried; nor to a queen, although Elisabeth I also tried. One marble carving of an old man holding a scroll, sitting next to a globe, and surrounded by cherubs and clouds is large. Very large. And sits in the middle of the nave, on the right hand of the altar used for daily prayer services. The base of the statue is a foot tall, trying to get in all the important reasons why this man is buried in the Abbey. The tomb marks the grave of no less an imposing figure than Isaac Newton. The weighty tomb does seem fitting for a man who taught the world why the statues will not move unless presented with sufficient force.
Yet, with all the famous people, I found myself drawn to the simple stones. The ones who are not on the audio tour. Faithful worshippers, canons, the names who no longer hold meaning for us. Who were they? Do they still have family come to visit their graves? There are newer graves, of course. I saw a few from the 1980s and 1990s, but what about the stones whose 17th century death date can only just be read? Are they forgotten? In the hubbub to see the grandest tomb in the Abbey, their names and epithets are worn off by millions of feet.