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Monday, August 8, 2011

LONDON DAY 9, July 8th

Our first Friday in London was a bit of a wet one, as the showers lingered from the night before. But we're determined to visit Westminster Abbey with my in-laws. My father-in-law needs a walker to get around, so we take a taxi to the Abbey first thing in the morning.
There are two long cues on either side of the entranceway, which is a bit confusing, but after 20 minutes in line, a guard spots us with my father-in-law and ushers us in. I must say, the Abbey's pretty crowded so it's difficult to get a good look. With very little light inside on a gloomy day, even the Waterford crystal chandeliers gifted by the Guinness family, however wonderful, don't provide much illumination.

"It's over two thousand years old," Rich reminds me,"don't expect it to have the kind of lighting that we're used to." I know he's right, but after the mystical experience at St. Paul's, which was so unexpected, I've set my sights quite high for the Abbey, which some say is even more exciting to tour than St. Paul's.
At first a Catholic monastery until the fifteen century, the monks were soon banished and sent to France.
Recently, incredible Catholic murals that resemble icons have been discovered on the walls near Poet's & Writer's Corner and are being restored.
We wait to take a guided tour, and of course, I'm anticipating another Chris to enlighten us with lots of tidbits and behind-the-scene gems like in St. Paul's, but it doesn't happen. The many little chapels where paintings and tombs are kept are so crowded, we're ushered in single file and told to keep moving, with no time to linger.
Regardless, seeing the Abbey and being surrounded by such history up-close is worthwhile, even if the Italian tour group races to get to a chapel before we do. Having been a royal wedding watcher since I was a child, it's thrilling to follow the same checkered-tiled path that the former Kate Middleton took toward the altar, and walking around the Victoria Cross where she left her royal bouquet to the unknown soldier.
Then our guide unhooks a rope around the altar, the high altar where Kate and Prince William were married and tells us to follow him. Follow him? Up to the hallowed altar we all saw on TV and where only Prince Harry and the Bishop or whoever it was that married them, were allowed to be on?
This is amazing. Then our guide opens the door on the screen behind the altar, where Kate and Prince William and the Queen and Prince Charles stepped through after the ceremony. "Come on!" he tells us. So now we're not only traipsing across the floor of the high altar,(no wonder Kate was a bit nervous, I would have been terrified, as the only bright light in the entire Abbey is shining down on us), but we're going through the doorway and into the shrine.

"It's like we're behind-the-scenes in a museum where only the curators go," I whisper to Rich. In this shrine, kings from the past 10 centuries are buried and it's here where princes are signed into kings, just a few feet from where they might be buried. We walk along the rugged chapel floor set in 1268, careful not to crumble up too much dust. Being amongst these royal tombs where the bones of such kings as Edward I lie,(he had his coronation here, too, in 1296), is both exhilarating and eerie and certainly brings history into the present moment. It's as if the last thousand years of British life are literally at your feet.

"All the royal tombs are full," our guide informs us. "The last one buried here was King George in 1760." But I'm still stuck on King Edward I and his massive gilded bronze tomb; he was said to be six foot four. I can't really describe it, but the shrine actually smells like history- a mixture of moss and marble that's weathered thousands of years of living, coupled with musty cobwebs, bones and incense. And all around are ancient tapestries and the scent of burlap and really old dust. It's not a place I'd like to get locked into over night, but it's hard to tear myself away. I've never been beside bones this old-- or surrounded by such a long and consecutive line of humanity--in this case, the British Royal family.

The number of Royals and well-known British icons buried in the Abbey is astounding, from Mary Queen of Scots (she's in the South Chapel and you must go and see her), to Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters, each with marble busts or tombs to mark their importance. I'll always remember the likeness that Mary's son King James I made of her on the tomb, with her long and regal marble fingers, Elizabethan collar and wavy locks-- erasing any image of her beheading-- how she appears to be sleeping peacefully when her life was such a tortured one.

Part of the Abbey is "open air" on the way to the gardens, which were closed,
and also en route to the gift shop, which leads to the display of the Royal Wedding. The little exhibit has many stunning photographs that are nearly life-size.

By the time our tour ends we're starving and just a short walk from The Albert, where my father-in-law can have roast beef.
Rich and I enjoy a second round of carvery bliss then decide that tonight, we'll head to the Victoria & Albert Museum, for their late night Friday, and see the concert performed by the Royal Conservatory.

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