May 29, 2008
Thursday was Libby’s last day in Britain before flying back to Ireland for two more weeks in Galway. Like Tuesday, we had big plans to see a lot of London and came up short; not for lack of trying, but simply because every landmark in London is so remarkable. The entire cityscape is built and outlined with the riches of the last thousand years.
In particular, Westminster was the big time killer for the day. I could have spent the entire day there. Westminster was founded sometime in the 9th or 10th century. Over the next ten centuries, it has remained one of the epicenters for both spiritual and state power in Britain, and it’s collection of graves and memorials is perhaps unrivaled throughout the entire world. Only in Italy and the Holy Land can I think of any comparable sites, and they rival Westminster only in distinction and renown, not in volume.
Visitors enter the Abbey from the North entrance. Libby and I passed on the guided audio tours, preferring to simply glide through all the little chapels and ambulatories. In retrospect, this was a mistake. I tried to go back to Westminster on Saturday, but it was closed for services. Getting all the history while there seems important; it helps you absorb your surroundings. Nevertheless, the walls seem to echo the voices of previous ages. This enumeration of some of the highlights will serve only as the slightest glimpse into the experience.
I had some small idea of how many people were buried at Westminster, but I never realized just how cluttered that would make the interior. Graves and memorials overlap everywhere. With the exception of the monarchs; the larger the memorial, the more uninteresting are it’s occupants. The aristocracy and lesser functionaries of the last three centuries seem especially preoccupied with the glamour and placement of their marble epitaphs. One particular example that seems to transcend the other tombs is that of Lady Elizabeth Nightingale. Commissioned to the French sculptor Roubiliac, a cloaked, skeletal spectre is literally climbing out of the open tomb doors with his spear aimed at the Lady while her husband fruitlessly defends her.
In the center of the nave is the Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, surrounded by the sepulchers of seven lesser monarchs. St. Edward is the reason for the existence of Westminster. He had originally vowed to make a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Tomb in Rome, but after his ascendency to the throne was unable to do so. Pope Leo IX wrote to Edward, asking him to use the monies set aside for the pilgrimage to aid the poor and to instead rebuild a monastery to honor St. Peter. Edward chose the abbey on Thorney Island, and the original Westminster began.
The Coronation Chair sits at the end of the Shrine. Every monarch back to William the Conqueror in 1066 (with two exceptions) have been crowned in Westminster Abbey. Since 1296, when this chair was commissioned, every monarch has been crowned while seated in it, with the Stone of Scone securely in place underneath.
The East end of Westminster is the Lady Chapel, built by King Henry VII. The Lady Chapel is dominated by the exquisitely delicate ceiling, a marvel of 16th century stonework. The banners of the Knights of the Order of Bath hang directly beneath. Side chapels surrounding the Lady Chapel contain other graves, including Elizabeth I, her half-sister Mary I, and her half-cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.
Poets’ Corner was one of the highlights of the Abbey. The tradition began with the burial of Chaucer and Spenser in Westminster. Other luminaries resting here include Tennyson, Browning, Dickens, Carol, Kipling, the composer Handel, and the late actor Laurence Olivier. The memorials are even more extensive. Shakespeare has a commanding view of his lesser colleagues. It’s difficult to linger here without a small, thoughtful requiescat passing your lips. Here lie some of the founders of our language, and by proxy, our very mode of thought.
The cloister outside the Abbey reminded us that this was once a working monastery. Some of the older graves of Westminster’s abbots line the walls, the names worn away from the marble. One particularly large vault contains the remains of 26 monks who perished of the Black Death in 1349. Passing back into the front of the Nave, we visited Britain’s Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, on which our own monument was modeled. The soldier interred here, of unknown name or rank, was brought back from France after the Great War (World War I) and laid to rest under great ceremony and gravity - a fitting reminder of the price of nations.
Two tombs remain that I feel the need to mention. Charles Darwin lies near the north wall of the nave. Sir Isaac Newton is buried underneath a fittingly grand monument at the choir entrance. It’s a memorable moment for me to have paused to pay respect to a man of such profound and industrious genius. Of all the great minds in the history of the world, perhaps only a few are suitable to be considered along with Newton. Translated, his epitaph reads, ”Here is buried Isaac Newton, Knight, who by a strength of mind almost divine, and mathematical principles peculiarly his own, explored the course and figures of the planets, the paths of comets, the tides of the sea, the dissimilarities in rays of light, and, what no other scholar has previously imagined, the properties of the colours thus produced. Diligent, sagacious and faithful, in his expositions of nature, antiquity and the holy Scriptures, he vindicated by his philosophy the majesty of God mighty and good, and expressed the simplicity of the Gospel in his manners. Mortals rejoice that there has existed such and so great an ornament of the human race! He was born on 25th December, 1642, and died on 20th March 1726/7.”
After emerging into the sunlight, Libby and I paused for a moment to gather our faculties and take some pictures of the Parliament buildings and it’s Clock Tower. Still trailing the dust of history from Westminster, we examined these buildings in the same way. It’s hard to imagine what Guy Fawkes was thinking, wanting to explode a building of such quintessential English character. But religious debates often create the most dramatic and lasting impressions, overtaking easily the culture and history of a people. And Fawkes was but a later riposte to the original debate!
After lunch, we took the tube over to see Buckingham Palace and St. James’s Park. We unfortunately missed the Changing of the Guard earlier in the morning, so we didn’t linger long. Instead, we walked down to Harrod’s Department Store, passing several incredibly ritzy hotels along the way. The front carriageways were all filled with Bentleys, Rolls Royces, Ferraris, and Aston Martins. Harrod’s was a throwback to old world luxury, available now as a commodity. I considered briefly a marble cigar holder I found between the Prada shoes and the Zegna belts, but its 200 Sterling price tag kept me safely away.
Our next stop for the afternoon was, sadly, a mistake. Libby and I both loved Bedknobs & Broomsticks, so we decided to head out of our way to Portobello Road. A little bit of research would have revealed that the riches of ages are stowed there only on Saturdays, when the market enlivens the entire area. On a Thursday, the street was just another quaint little shop district of London.
Another shopping district, at Regent Street, was our last stop before meeting with Neil and Sue for the evening’s entertainment. I managed to royally screw up my power adapter by trying to convert 240V down to 110V when the upper limit of my transformer was 220V. It blew up. Luckily, the adapter did it’s job and protected my computer. But I still needed to get to the Apple Store and pay for my mistake. The Apple Store was beautiful - two stories of gleaming glass and steel. It was jam-packed with people too, as is every Apple store I see. They really hit a home run with their stores.
We stopped in a few shops on Regent Street, most notably Burberry. I found a pair of jeans I loved, but 165 Pounds ($330!) was a bit steep (cough). So instead we made our way back into Soho and across to Leicester Square to find Neil and Sue.
Neil wrangled a deal at one of the last minute ticket booths, and we grabbed balcony seats for Monty Python’s Spamalot (Hairspray was sold out) for a steal. Soho also contains the Chinatown district of London, considerably bigger than Washington’s, so we perused the specials looking for one that matched Neil’s taste (so demanding). After, we walked over to the Palace Theatre for the show. I grabbed an enormous glass of wine, which I gleefully took with me to my seat.
We laughed maniacally for the next two hours. Spamalot has many of the same scenes as the movie (Holy Grail), along with some new bits and some uproarious songs. The cast was fabulous and the sets were phenomenal. The entire spectacle was filled with easy laughter and relaxation.
Walking out, Neil hailed a taxi to get us back to Liverpool Street Station for the train home. We were treated to a barrage of political discourse for the next twenty minutes by our cabby, who had quite a few things to say about London’s new Mayor Boris. We were home a half hour later, and finished the night with a cup of tea. Libby was leaving early the next morning, so we said our goodbyes before bed. I was a little sad and already a bit nostalgic about Ireland; it was fun to have such a good travel partner to see London (and two to see Ireland!) And besides, I’d be stuck by myself with a bunch of blasted Brits for the next 3 days.
I can think of worse fates.