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At Westminster Abbey

September 15, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my Spitalfields tour throughout October




Betty’s owner said, ‘Good morning lovely people. Betty is home. A kind lady, Vanessa, had Betty and handed her back this morning. Thank you all for the huge support … very appreciated. I know everyone has their own stuff to deal with so very grateful. Thank you’


The past is a cluttered and shadowy place, filled with wonders we do not know and things that we choose to forget. These were my thoughts on visiting Westminster Abbey for the first time in many years, taking a rare opportunity of the absence of tourists to explore an old haunt that is otherwise inaccessible without crowds.

Certainly on the day of my arrival, the living were outnumbered by the 3300 dead yet, more than this, the over 300 statuary easily outnumbered the animated souls in the Abbey too. It is hard not to get overwhelmed by the weight of history in a place of such dense and heavy significance as this. Greater than the sense of a vast contained space is the feeling of how narrow and gloomy it is, and how crowded with tombs and memorials, like a great skull crowded with too many memories and not all of them good ones.

It is the nature of the place and of our history that this is literally a shrine to imperialism. Confronted with bombastic statues of those who subjugated the world, it was my great relief to discover Thomas Fowell Buxton, brewer and abolitionist, sitting quietly on a chair for eternity as if he were waiting to greet me. And just a few feet away sat William Wilberforce, also approachable in an armchair, by contrast with those colonial ‘heroes’ asserting their bellicose virility upright on plinths.

The myth of the abbey’s origin is that fisherman had a vision of St Peter while fishing near Thorn Island on the Thames in the seventh century and founded a church on the site. But the recorded origins of the abbey lie with our own St Dunstan of Stepney who installed a community of Benedictine monks here around 970.

Of particular fascination for me is the Cosmati Pavement laid down by Islamic craftsmen in 1268 for Henry III at the centre of the abbey. This intricate mystical design of interwoven circles composed of coloured mineral stones is believed to be a symbolic map of the cosmos – the primum mobile – and it is at the centre of this pavement that every monarch has been crowned since 1066.

Perhaps the most magical part of the abbey are the ancient battered tombs of the early English kings, such as Henry V and Richard II, personalities whom we feel we know thanks to William Shakespeare. Once you reach the east end of the old abbey, steps ascend to Henry VII’s Lady Chapel. You enter the light of a renaissance chapel from the gloom of the medieval abbey and the astonishing geometric detail of the fan vaulting high overhead takes your breath away.

Even as they were rivals in life, it is surprising to discover that Elizabeth I and Mary are both memorialised here in shrines of apparent equal status, each in a separate side chapel set apart diplomatically at distance on either side of the main space.

It is impossible not to be moved by the worn stones under your feet, smoothed by the tread of our innumerable forebears through centuries and the poignant multiplicity of tombs and effigies, striving so hard to win eternal remembrance for those who are now entirely forgotten.

I must confess to unease about the selection of writers honoured in Poets’ Corner which to my eyes appears as remarkable for the omissions as much as for those who are included. I have not been here since I attended the inauguration of a plaque for John Clare in 1993. On this recent visit, it delighted me more to visit the tomb of a favourite writer, Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn her living by the pen, in the cloister. Even if the inscription ‘Here lies a proof that wit can never be / proof enough against immortality’ is less than generous and, thankfully, now proved incorrect.

William Wilberforce

Cosmological Pavement

The Coronation Chair

Tomb of Henry V

Henry VII’s Lady Chapel

Poets’ Corner

Tomb of Aphra Behn in the cloister

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16 Responses leave one →
  1. marianne isaacs permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Westminster Abbey is without doubt my favorite place in London . I was so entranced by it that I spent most of a day wondering around being a tourist in the best possible sense . So very old and so worn by the incredible history it has seen .

  2. Georgina Briody permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Thankful Betty is back, what a worry, phew!

  3. Andy permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Glad Betty is back.
    Truly topical and appropriate Westminster Abbey.
    I think so many mourners not only mourning for the Queen but someone else.
    A big place as the photos tell.
    Best wishes,

  4. Ursula Whitbread permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Congratulations for the best account of Westminster Abbey I’ve ever read! Best in every way!!

  5. Elizabeth Kennedy permalink
    September 15, 2022

    I last visited the Abbey in 1946 with my parents. I reported told my pa that there were too many tombs. I must go back and look again.
    P.S. So glad Betty is found!

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Pheeeeeeew!! So glad Betty is safe and well and back where she belongs.

  7. Paul loften permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Thank you for bringing this to us. It’s a reminder of my own mortality and lowly status in life. Although it doesn’t bring dark feelings . I am quite happy with anonymity and to return from whence I came .

  8. Laura Williamson permalink
    September 15, 2022

    So glad Betty is safe and home!

    The most moving tomb there for me is the oldest in the Abbey, which I stumbled upon in the South cloister. Gilbert Crispin (c 1055-1117) Abbot of Westminster was the son of a noble Norman family and there is a rumour that he was an arrow boy at Hastings. His “Dialogue with a Rabbi” is remarkable in its time ( and most times) for its civilised and tolerant nature.

    The worthy names of young Owen, Sorley, Rosenberg and their fellow WW1 poets brought a lump to my throat.

  9. Robin Houghton permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Lovely post, although the black and white photos do make it seem a very gloomy place. I suppose I’ve never thought of it like that. There’s also the beautiful David Hockney stained glass window, worth a mention. I’ve had the privilege of singing the services at the Abbey with my small choir quite a few times and it has always been for me a place filled with life, light and music. I’m always moved by it (and I’m an atheist!) Although I, too, noted the small (and somewhat snitty) memorial to Aphra Behn relegated to the cloister.

  10. September 15, 2022

    My favourite part of Westminster Abbey are the cloister gardens right at the back beyond the nave. They lie alongside the school and feature dramatic sculptures among the trees and a truly lovely fountain.

  11. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Re Westminster Abbey I recently went to a concert of Montiverdi’s Vespers there which was beautiful and they used various parts of the building very effectively for different soloists but like you I was surprised about how dark and gloomy the building is, especially the black marble columns.

    We were seated near the entrance and so I didn’t get as far as the Henry V11 lady chapel which looks stunning – I’ll have to go back as a tourist to see that!

    I hope you will be visiting the floral tributes in Green Park as I’d be interested to know your take on a living bit of history… it is very moving whatever your feelings are about the monarchy.

    (I of course have added my tribute in banner form…)

  12. Christine permalink
    September 15, 2022

    I’m please Betty has been found ?

  13. Amanda permalink
    September 15, 2022

    Thanks for the special histories and nooks l didn’t see myself so l may re-vist with fresh eyes. I had already toured Parliament and both my camera battery and my own were flagging.

    My magical pilgimage of the Islamic architecture in Andalucía has been reawakened also by these ceilings and the uplifting designs of the mosaic pavement.
    Strange that l should chat with the gently spoken poet Seamus Heanney at the Cordóba Poetry Festival and his book arrived in the post this very morning as l read about Westminster’s Poets’ Corner. I too have always been curious about the omissions.

    Thank you for the Stop Press for Betty’s safe return and my favourite of her photos with her telephone shower in the bath. Thank goodness.

    A baby toad determinedly hopped over the door threshold into my kitchen this morning. She blinked at me with no hurry to return to the garden and from that signal of trust from Mother Nature, l knew all would be well for Betty’s reunion. And so it was.

  14. Carolyn Hooper permalink
    September 16, 2022

    Wonderful post, gentle author……

    Yes, the story of Imperialism…… To the fore and very front of mind for many this month……even if we live way down in Australia.

    How very sad that all the fine artisans and workers who created a building such as this, have no memorial – nothing to honour them, on display. Perhaps their intelligence and creativity was simply thought of as…….the stuff the plebs did for a living. Humankind continues this line of thinking in 2022….Oh, he’s just a baker or just a plumber.

    Carolyn Hooper

  15. Brenda Winter permalink
    September 16, 2022

    Just a wee note to say so happy that Betty is back home!

  16. suzy permalink
    September 17, 2022

    I’m SOOOOOOOOOOO happy Betty has been found! I’ve not stopped thinking about her! Sooooo happy. :oD

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