A trip to the Coronation Church

Venue: Westminster Abbey, London
Date: 07 Dec 2015

Rachel Bailey and Group Leisure readers got into the festive spirit on the December Reader Club trip to the beautiful Westminster Abbey.

While I might have visited the abbey only three weeks shy of Christmas, please don’t in any way think that Westminster wouldn’t be suitable to visit outside of the festive season. The abbey is beautiful both inside and out, and I think you’ll have a marvellous visiting at any time of year.

However, even I must admit that listening to the soaring voices of a boys’ choir at Evensong while night fell outside on the streets of London was a lovely experience in the run up to Christmas.

Westminster at Christmas

Pictured: A Christmas tree outside Westminster Abbey, all ready for the festive season.

A little bit of history

Stepping out of the tube station and catching a glimpse of Westminster is enough to boost anyone’s spirits. The towers and spires of the abbey, which perches to the west of the Palace of Westminster, invoke a picture of royal celebrations and English patriotism, so iconic is the Gothic building.

The building dates back to around AD 960, when the bishop of London established a group of 12 monks on the site to worship. However, much of the church that visitors can see today was built on the orders of Henry III between 1245 and 1272 – although many alterations and additions have been made to the architecture over the years.

Westminster is a living church where worship still takes place today, and it is also the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English monarchs. The heart of the abbey is also surrounded by the tombs and memorials of many non-royal great men and women from British history, from playwrights and authors to composers and scientists.

The royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton took place within the building in 2011; and during our visit we were let in on a little secret. An ornate structure, known as the Quire, actually divides the aisle which Kate walked down, but during the television coverage, was cut out to portray a long walk with no obstacles.  

Westminster Abbey is worth visiting just to learn a bit about the royals who were crowned there and the religious importance the building has represented throughout the centuries. Don’t assume that a visit will be information-heavy though; the architecture, stained glass windows, and numerous treasures dotted about the space are equally an appealing reason to go.

South Transept

Pictured: Poet's Corner in The South Transept. (Photo credit: Jim Dyson - Wesminster Abbey).

Not just another group tour

Our winter visit to Westminster Abbey involved a verger tour followed by afternoon tea in the café; but it’s not a tour like you’ve ever done before. A verger tour comes with an additional charge of £5 per person, and is limited to 20 people, but it’s worth it for the added information provided by your guide. Our female verger was particularly impressive – one of our group described her as the ‘best tour guide she’d ever experienced’.

Despite this, I’d suggest that the abbey is best explored independently, accompanied by an audio guide. There’s lots to see, and the audio guide gives a full description of many hidden corners of Westminster, which might easily be missed when travelling around as part of a large group.

Checking in to the superstructure, getting comfortable with your audio guide, and setting off with an agreement to meet your group members later on would be the best policy in my opinion. The audio guides also give you the opportunity to focus on interests personal to each group member; one person might like to skip ahead to Poets’ Corner, while others might want an extensive description about the cloisters.

And don’t think it’ll be an hour-long wander; there’s enough to explore in the magnificent building to fill at least three or four hours – if you hurry.

If you would like a guided tour with a person as opposed to the audio guide, tours for groups of up to 30 can be arranged during normal opening hours and should be accompanied by a Blue Badge guide (bookable via the Association of Professional Guides).

If you’d like to visit without an organised tour leader, note that parties will be split into smaller groups of no more than five to prevent overcrowding.

Afternoon tea at Westminster

Pictured: Group Leisure readers enjoyed afternoon tea after our abbey tour.

I would recommend…

During our trip, we were shown the highlights of the abbey in order for our readers to get a feel for the history, architecture and national significance of Westminster. My top three sights are as follows:

Poets' Corner. This is one of the best known parts of the abbey, and can be found in the South Transept. It wasn’t originally dedicated to poets; Chaucer was buried there in 1400 – not for his literature but because he had been clerk of works to the palace of Westminster. However, the 1556 installation of a more magnificent tomb commemorating his literary talents, plus the burial of Edmund Spenser in 1599 solidified a tradition. You can now see memorials and tombs for a number of literary greats, including Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters (the tombs of most of the female writers are smaller than those of the men).

The Coronation Chair. You can’t miss seeing the famous chair, even though it’s actually quite plain and not the magnificent throne-like station you might imagine as fit for a freshly crowned royal. The chair, situated in St George’s Chapel, has been used at almost every coronation since at least that of Henry IV in the 14th century. Keep your eyes peeled for carved graffiti on it, which the chair suffered from during the centuries it was left unprotected from the public.

The Quire. This gold, blue and red structure by Edward Blore dates back to the mid-19th century. It sits in the original location where the choir singing for the monks' worship would have taken place but bears no resemblance to the original. Today, the Quire is still used for singing; we were lucky enough to sit right next to the boys’ choir during Evensong. It also provides seating for the Queen and the high commissioners of the Commonwealth, with countries including Canada and Australia having permanently named places.

www.westminster-abbey.org

Extend your London itinerary

GTOs who are looking to extend a visit to London and visit further highlights can combine a trip to Westminster with a Big Bus Tour, which is what some Group Leisure readers did during the December Reader Club trip.

Big Bus Tours offers a hop-on hop-off bus ticket allowing passengers to get off as and where they’d like in London. The bus tours drop off at over 50 stops, so groups can explore a variety of attractions and famous landmarks one after another without worrying about transport.

www.eng.bigbustours.com

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