Winter in London: Day Five

Here we are, at the final day of my wonderful trip to London in late 2013. By this time, I was well into a very unpleasant cold, and was mortified to have to carry around piles of Kleenex with me everywhere I went. I was also very sad that this was our final day in London, but despite these two setbacks I tried to make the best of things, and we had a great final day.

We started off by taking the Tube to Westminster. Westminster is one of my favourite Tube stations, because if you take the right exit from the station, Big Ben is towering above you from just across the road. And this is one of the most bustling areas in central London, popular amongst tourists because of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, the London Eye, and aforementioned Big Ben.

Big Ben

Big Ben (more correctly, Elizabeth Tower) and the London Underground sign of Westminster station

The Eye and Big Ben

The Eye and Big Ben

The green space of Parliament Square is also nearby, and in the past I have observed many protestors and civil campaigners camped out in the square. However, they were absent on this trip, which made the Square seem much more inviting; and for the first time I noticed the collection of statues that are situated around the Square. These statues are of various statesmen, and my favourite is of Winston Churchill. As the man who led Britain victoriously through the Second World War, Sir Winston Churchill is a historical figure whom I deeply admire.

Statue of Winston Churchill

Parliament Square’s statue of Sir Winston Churchill, who lived from 1874-1965

Despite all the numerous incredible sights that are situated within a very concentrated area here, there was one in particular that we were headed for. Westminster Abbey was that landmark; the magnificent building which, for almost 800 years, has been the site for royal weddings, funerals, and coronations. The Abbey is a truly awesome place- imposing and dignified on the outside, and breathtakingly elaborate inside. The interior is filled with tombs, effigies, inscriptions, and carvings, which have been added to and added to for eight centuries. One could take an entire day in the Abbey and still not give everything due attention. I personally have had three trips to Westminster Abbey, and I still feel like there is a lot I’ve missed.

North Entrance of Westminster

The North Entrance of the Abbey

Western Side of Abbey

The unmistakeable Western side of the Abbey

Westminster Abbey Exterior

Exterior of the Abbey. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Ceaton89

Westminster Exterior Engraving

Beautiful and meaningful engraving on the exterior of the Abbey; it reads: May God grant to the living, grace; to the departed, rest; to the church and the world, peace and concord; and to us sinners, eternal life.

The detail of many of the tombs is unbelievable, although some of the older ones are very worn. Every tomb and effigy is different, and it’s really neat to see the unique features of a given person’s tomb and then speculate as to why that feature is there. For example, one tomb of a husband and wife had small carved children supporting it, and that was because the couple had lost several children in childhood. Another tomb (that of Frances Sidney, the Countess of Sussex) depicted a carved porcupine, because the Sidney family crest incorporates a porcupine. It would be fascinating to research every person buried here, to better understand the appearance of their tombs.

And the interior of the Abbey is simply stunning- there is so much ornamentation (although it is not as blatant and eye-catching as in St. Paul’s Cathedral), and the soaring carved stone arches and vaulted ceilings are breathtaking. They draw one’s attention up towards heaven- a major feature of Gothic architecture- and the atmosphere inside the Abbey is one of tranquility and thoughtfulness, despite the usual crowds of tourists.

Westminster Abbey Choir

Choir area of the Abbey. Image attributed to Harland Quarrington/MOD

King Edward's Chair

King Edward’s Chair, the chair used for coronations. It was commissioned in 1296. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Kjetil Bjørnsrud

Some of the most memorable parts of the Abbey were, for me, those parts which pertain to the World Wars. There are many memorials scattered around the building, in the form of commemorative windows, books listing the dead, and statues. And, of course, there is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior- an incredibly touching feature of the Abbey, and an important memorial to the brave dead who are remembered with thanks and reverence by an entire nation. Containing the unidentified remains of a British soldier who died on the fields of France in World War I, this is the only tomb in the Abbey on which one is not allowed to walk. The graves of dukes, poets, and statesmen are fair game, but not the resting place of this soldier- and I think that is truly appropriate and beautiful.

Memorial outside Westminster

Memorial outside the Abbey

WWII Memorials Westminster

Memorials commemorating the WWII navy, air force, and army

Battle of Britain Window

Battle of Britain memorial window, in the Royal Air Force Chapel. The chapel was damaged by Luftwaffe bombs in WWII and was later repaired and dedicated to the men who saved Britain from those same bombs. Image from geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Richard Croft

Westminster Abbey is not just one giant sanctuary- once one leaves the nave and the adjoining transepts and chapels, there are still cloisters and the Chapter House to discover. These areas are so well-preserved that it isn’t a stretch to imagine Benedictine monks milling about, as they did here in medieval times.

Westminster Courtyard

Charming courtyard behind the Abbey; people actually live in the homes visible on the left.

Chapter House Westminster

The Chapter House is glorious- a beautiful piece of architecture

And that was almost the end of our trip to London, save for one experience that we had all been eagerly anticipating. That evening, we attended an Advent Carol Service at Temple Church. Consecrated in 1185 for use by the Knights Templar, Temple Church is an ancient building and a fixture of the City. And this carol service was an intensely memorable and poignant event for me.

Temple Church

Exterior of Temple Church, with the distinctive round section visible on left. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to AlanFord

Temple Church Interior

Temple Church’s beautiful and unique interior. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Cmglee

Temple Church Organ

The organ at Temple Church. We sat only a few feet to the right of where this picture was taken. Image from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to AlanFord

I should say, I was feeling beyond disgusting with a cold by this point, so I could not enjoy the service as much as I would have had I not felt so terrible and self-conscious. However, my illness did not detract from the incredible sense of peace and awe that I felt during the service- I really felt like I and the rest of the congregation were in the presence of God.

After we were all seated in the church, the lights were turned off. We sat in silence for a few minutes, until from somewhere in the dark a singing voice became audible. It belonged to a member of the choir, and it filled the cold, unlit sanctuary and made me feel like I was in a 13th century monastery. It really was amazing. The entire choir was so talented and the organ was magnificent, making this service at Temple one of my favourite experiences of the entire trip.

The next morning, unfortunately, we left London and returned to the dreary urban sprawl of the Toronto area. But this trip was wonderful, and it reminded me that Christmastime is one of the best times one could possibly visit London. Everything is so exciting and hopeful there in December; the chilly, rainy weather not discouraging the droves of shoppers from their mission. Plus, the streets are mainly full of locals rather than tourists at this time of year, which I find to be preferable! I know that most people are yearning for tropical climes by November and December, but in the run-up to Christmas, London is the only destination for me.

 

 

 

 

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