Tuesday, May 2, 2017

London Vacacay, Outing 6: Westminster Abbey!

Outing 6 was all about Westminster Abbey. We had been waiting for this all week. Remember that we originally wanted to go see it on Outing 4, but it was closed. It was also closed the following day, so this was the first chance we actually had to get in.

A couple of quick notes about our visit:

  1. Outing 6 took place on Thursday. The weather had been doing nothing but becoming more and more pleasant all week, so Thursday was a really nice day to be out and about.
  2. As noted above, Westminster Abbey had been closed for two days. We had planned to go earlier, but couldn't. We weren't the only people in that situation.
We arrived early (of course), and were bewildered by the lines stretching away from the entrance in both directions. There were at least 500 people in line ahead of us. At first, we thought perhaps this was the line for purchasing admission tickets, which we didn't need to do thanks to the London Pass (more on that in a future post). Nope, it was the line to get in. We took our place in the queue and waited.

Our situation, but not our picture (this one owned by "Messages from Martha Sue", https://marthasue.wordpress.com/)
We finally gained entrance and, as we were using our London Pass to get the ticket, asked about the Verger Tour. The first tour had already left, and the next was already full, so we asked about the third tour of the day. The policy is that tickets for the tour are only really available 15 minute prior to the tour, and it's sold on a first-come-first-served basis. We were slightly distraught, as we adore informative guided tours (in case you hadn't figured that out by now), and knew it would be a struggle to get into two of the ten slots with so many people in attendance that day. The kind lady behind the counter took pity on us and allowed us to pre-pay for the next tour. WHEW!

That gave us about 30 minutes to toodle around. Normally, this would have been pretty great. Today, however, it was a stressful experience, as the church was already crowded and getting moreso by the minute. You couldn't really get close to anything or linger anywhere without bumping into someone or impeding someone else's progress. This was the first time this kind of thing had happened to us on our trip, but it wouldn't be the last (note the foreshadowing... imagine ominous music played right after you read that).

We didn't wander very far from where the tour started, since it wasn't going to be worth it to fight through everyone else there. Luckily, there was a small, reserved waiting area for the Verger Tours, so about 20 minutes before our tour, we procured our tour wristband and hung out there. Our guide showed up about 5 minutes early and looked more stressed out than any tour guide we'd encountered, by far. Westminster Abbey, as it turns out, is often crowded, but today was especially so due to the closing earlier in the week and the current nice weather.

The tour started, and the first thing the guide told us was... can you guess? If you said "NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED" or something similar, treat yourself to a cookie. You earned that prize! Luckily for us, Westminster Abbey realizes this is an issue, so they've created a public photo gallery. I've linked a few of the images below.

Westminster Abbey, in some form or fashion, has stood on these grounds for almost 1,000 years. In fact, it was built on the ruins of an even older church, one that was constructed in the 7th century.

One of the first stops on our tour is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior.

The original.
The above grave was the first of its kind, dating back to the end of the first World War. Other churches and nations throughout the world have taken to doing similar things, but this was the first.

Westminster Abbey is full of monuments, memorials, and graves. Everyone who was anyone throughout the history of England is either there or memorialized there. There are different sections for people of different vocation. For example, several scientists are buried together. These two guys are right next to each other:

Sir Isaac Newton
Charles Darwin
More than a few people you wouldn't expect to see memorialized in the Abbey are there. Have a look at Poets' Corner, for example.

Poets' Corner memorials, from above
The upper left memorial there is Lord Byron, who most definitely did not desire to be memorialized in Westminster Abbey (or any other abbey, for that matter).

There are a few that had ALWAYS planned to be there. Take, for example, Handel.

Staring down at the other artists in Poets' Corner
The story goes that he had always planned to be buried here, had detailed out how the memorial was to be constructed and placed, and had financed it himself. He even specified that the face of the statue be taken from his death mask. Meaning, this statue looks like Handel actually looked, at least in the face.

Everyone who was anyone includes monarchs, and there is no shortage of monarchical memorials either.

Henry VII
Elizabeth I

Mary, Queen of Scots
One of the highlights of the tour was a few minutes spent in the Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor.

The only empty place in the church!
The public is not allowed to visit this chapel -- only the folks on the tour get to see it. As such, it was the only place in the church that felt... well, like a church. Edward's tomb is actually atop the shrine (the structure with the three alcoves), and the chapel is surrounded by the tombs of other royalty. Regardless of your belief system, this is a place in which it is worth spending a few moments in contemplation.

Once the tour ended, we immediately felt like we needed to get outside for a bit. Luckily, the Abbey has a very nice garden attached, in front of some offices and apartments of the employees/residents.

A door leading to a place with no other tourists! Heaven?
The garden and day were so pleasant that we decided to have a proper preprandial turn about the garden before leaving for a late lunch.

Tanya walking. And some other folks discovering the garden.

Me walking, narrowly avoiding the other tourists. Are they rushing the garden?!
We left the garden after a while and enjoyed a late lunch of healthy foods. Seriously, it's possible to find healthy foods in London if you look for them. We like beet-based salads, and were able to find some without too much trouble. We did, however, get the picture you've all been waiting for before we left.

Gotta have the Westminster Abbey selfie!

The walk and lunch left us in the right frame of mind for our evening activity: Evensong


On the strong recommendation of one of my coworkers, we decided to attend the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey at 5. For those of you that aren't familiar with an Evensong service, the choir sings the bulk of the service, both hymns and responses on behalf of the congregation. Your job is to sit, stand, sit, stand, and sit again as the service dictates, and otherwise remain silent. Honestly, it's a pretty glorious way to do church. :-)

Consider that Westminster Abbey's acoustics were built specifically for this purpose, with lots of stone, high and vaulted ceilings, and a massive pipe organ. Combine these with the knowledge that as you sit, silently listening to the music roll over you from all directions, you are participating in a ritual that has continued for almost 1,000 years in this very spot. For someone sensitive to all of those things, it can be slightly overwhelming.

I strongly encourage you to set some time aside at some point and listen to a bit of the above video. Or listen to all of it. It might do you some good, even if you don't believe in all the words the singers are singing.

After the service, we went on another fine-dining excursion, this time to Kitchen W8.

Kitchen W8

Kitchen W8 is a one-Michelin-star restaurant that is actually affordable (well, not ridiculously expensive, anyway). In fact, it's advertised as a neighbourhood restaurant, and it certainly has that feel to it.

To get there, we walked through Kensington. Of all the parts of London we walked through, this might've been my favorite. It's the kind of place in which I could imagine myself living -- slightly suburban, without the feeling of being a block away from one of the busiest cities in Europe.

Happy trees!!!
The restaurant's facing gives you a sense that it's a fairly casual place.

No sidewalk seating? How can this have a Michelin star?!
The inside is just as nicely done as the outside -- modestly elegant, contemporary without being overwhelmingly modern.

That's a mirror, not a porthole.
Everything about this place was delightful. The portions were rightly sized and delicious. The service was neither rushed nor neglectful.

Pork on the far plate, mullet(?) on the near
I wish I could gripe about the dessert (since I've yet to find a serving size that was too large), but I really can't. As with everything else about this place, the desserts were *just right*.

Would you have guess "parfait" for this dessert?
We lingered a little over dinner, savoring the last bites of the dessert and sips of port. Another perfect end to what turned out to be a fantastic day.

The next day, however, I became properly British (hint: you have to have High Tea). Coming soon!

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