Caveat Lector » Trafalgar and Westminster

Caveat Lector » Trafalgar and Westminster

Despite my mother’s enthusiastic recommendation, I found Westminster Abbey a difficult place to visit, and should I return to London, I don’t believe I will return there. The church itself is well-built and handsome, but its graceful old bones are impossible to see for all the plaques and busts and sculptures and coats-of-arms and regimental flags and inscriptions and decorated tombs and every other imaginable memorial created by the hand of man tumbling all over each other and fighting for attention.

Many of them would be quite beautiful, were there enough negative space around them to let them breathe. As it is, their tawdry overcrowding combined with the sad tombstones effaced by years of being trodden underfoot crushes the spirit with insistent reminders of not only death, but insignificance. Many interred there led thoroughly uninteresting and undistinguished lives, landing in Westminster Abbey by virtue of exalted birth or exalted wealth. Saddest of all to me are the many women whose tombs only remarked on their husbands or sons.

Dampening the experience further are the Abbey staff, who are clearly caught in a deeply unpleasant dilemma: tourists are their bread-and-butter, but they hate tourists, hate the hundreds of profane feet defiling sacred ground. Not a good mental space to be forced into, and they don’t hesitate to make their distaste known.

The Abbey is definitely an overwhelming pile of plaques, memorials, tombs, gravestones, and historical bric-a-brac, applied slapdash in layers and sometimes right over those of political enemies.  Our experience on entering was a similarly overwhelming sense of visual overload; it would best be expressed by muttering "gah!" and heading for the exits. However, we were lucky in that we signed up for the last tour of the day, with a decent docent who knew his stuff, and he took us from royal tomb to royal tomb in chrono order, and by then end we'd gotten not just a tour, but a 90-minute crash course in English history. 

If we hadn't taken the tour, and hadn't been lucky in getting a good guide, we would have left a lot more quickly and would have missed some interesting experiences. I'll never forget the sensation I felt when the organist "cleared the Abbey's throat" so to speak and played a few practice chords on the organ. I didn't so much hear the low notes as act as a resonating chamber for them as they quivered in my chest. Whew. I wish we could have stayed for the choir practice and service, but that would have been another couple of hours, and we were already pretty wiped out.

Dorothea's right about the annoyance the Abbey staff can exhibit about the tourists in a house of worship; also the hourly prayer meant to remind everyone that "it's a church, after all" sounds just like a departure announcement at the bus terminal. 

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