I am a jaded old cynic, a London Blue Badge Guide who has taken people round Westminster Abbey what, 200? 300 times? Pre-covid, some weeks I was taking tours three or four times a week, desperately trying not to sound like a man on autopilot as I talked about (yet again) Scientists’ Corner or the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
But the Hidden Highlights tour I went on this morning… Oh man, my socks have been blown so far off they’re probably halfway to the USA.
This is a £15 add-on to the normal entrance fee* and is worth every penny and more, showing you parts of the Abbey that are generally not things that any visitor sees.
*(I should just say that, despite my negativity in the opening par, right now is a great time to visit the Abbey. There are no crowds; you feel you have the whole place to yourself. And these days they allow photography as well. If you’ve never been, or only seen it at the height of the tourist season, you should definitely go now. Details here, or contact me if you’re after a private tour.)
Back to the Hidden Highlights. There were just two of us paying punters this morning, but as the maximum number on any tour is 14, it is never going to feel oppressive. One starts at the archaeological dig that is taking place on the site of the 13th century Sacristy, on the north side of the building. The Abbey plan a visitor centre here to allow for a better visitor flow at the entrance (and so those queuing to get in – assuming we get back to pre-covid levels – don’t have to do so in the rain). Under the foundations of the sacristy they have uncovered a graveyard, with remains from the 10th century (the time of the founding of Dunstan’s original abbey) plus two chalk tombs from Saxon times (i.e. 1400 years ago). There are complete skeletons in situ, loose bones are scattered on or protrude from the soil. One can gaze upon an intact skull and realise that this person was walking around this area more than 1000 years ago. It is incredibly moving, a tangible link to history as well as to one’s own mortality.
One then progresses to the St George’s Chapel, just to the right as one goes into the main building by the West Door. Here one is within touching distance of the Coronation Chair, close enough to make out the individual graffiti scratched on the back and the seat of this 700 year old piece of furniture. I’ve been on the other side of glass on this chapel on innumerable occasions, so to be on the inside looking out was something very special.
Then to the chapel behind the High Altar to sit beside the shrine to St Edward, who as the King of England, Edward the Confessor was the monarch responsible for giving the abbey its prominence and longevity. He endowed the small 10th century establishment with wealth and property, and financed the first stone abbey, consecrated in 1065. This shrine was an important site of mediaeval pilgrimage, and the reason why his devotee Henry III financed the construction of the sublime gothic building we see today. (Henry is buried close to Edward’s tomb, as are three other kings and four queens of England).
Next is the Abbey library, to be among 11,000 books dating from the 15th century onwards and to see manuscript fragments from the time of the Confessor, or an illuminated manuscript showing the coronation of King John. This is housed in the former monastic dormitory – and has been since 1591, the reign of Elizabeth I – above the east side of the cloisters.
The tour ends in the new triforium museum, the Diamond Jubilee Galleries, to see the fabulous view along the length of the building to the West Door, taking in Edward’s shrine, the Cosmati pavement, the Quire and the nave, as well as medieval treasures such as the 14th century The Litlyngton Missal, a wondrous illuminated manuscript, and the Liber Regalis, the ‘how to’ guide for the staging of coronations.
The Hidden Highlights tours take place twice a day nearly every day until the end of March. You really, really, need to make sure you do this tour – if a jaded old cynic like me can come away from it buzzing like I have, you are going to find it utterly compelling.