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Day Four: Westminster Abbey
I have never discussed this before, not with my closest friends or family and writing about it makes me feel a little weird.
I am fascinated with my limited view. When I see a picture of a landscape, I cannot for the life of me imagine that there could be anything beyond it. Obviously, there must be something but my mind doesn’t think that way. I fail to see beyond and constantly wonder what’s on the other side where my sight doesn’t reach.
So when my brother Feroze and I were on the London bridge last year, we admired Big Ben from a distance and didn’t go beyond it. I knew that the Westminster Abbey was somewhere there but had no sense of direction whatsoever. The huge, impressive Big Ben was like a landscape painting that I can’t see beyond. I couldn’t imagine that the city extended beyond the Big Ben, that there could be anything behind that massive structure, merely because I don’t know.
So when I made my way successfully to Westminster and emerged from the tube station on to the side of the Thames, I followed the signs to an area I wondered about for months ‘Behind Big Ben’ – and behind Big Ben the city extended majestically and there stood the historic Westminster Abbey.
There wasn’t anything particularly interesting to me about the Westminster Abbey except the Poet’s Corner. I visited the Abbey only to be at the Poet’s Corner of which I had a very grand imagination. The rest of the Abbey wasn’t of much interest to me as the Church gave special privileges to the Royal family that I am not a fan of. I have never liked the idea of an authoritative establishment such as the British Monarchy and was in many ways disgusted by the country’s obsession with the wedding of William and Kate which took place at the Abbey. That also explains why I have not visited the Buckingham Palace yet, as it doesn’t quite interest me. Maybe I will someday when I have nothing better to do in London. Therefore, my sole interest in the Abbey was the Poet’s Corner. Of course I admire Gothic architecture and am always humbled by visits to burial sites so the Abbey was a place I needed to visit.
I enjoyed walking to Abbey, with my eyes fixed on the Parliament building, the security guards with their big guns and luckily for me, the sun shone bright, making me really happy on that cold day. It was only around 12 pm when I bought a ticket and entered the Abbey. The ticket to the Abbey is expensive at 16 pounds, if it weren’t for the Poet’s Corner, I wouldn’t bother too much about visiting it. Little did I know that upon entering the Abbey there’d be another sight that’d make this visit truly worthwhile.
After making my way in, I was introduced to my personal tour guide – a hand held audio device which I thought was fantastic. Another very impressive bit of museum infrastructure I loved. The device had number keys on it and every exhibit was marked with a number. The audio on the device directs you to various places in the Abbey taking you on a very guided tour but if you’d like to wander on your own and yet know the history from the audio, all that is required to be done is pressing the exhibit number on the device and the commentary would begin. Awesome, no? Maybe this is very simple museum infrastructure but I am nevertheless amazed because there’s almost no such thing here in India or at least the museums in my city – Hyderabad.
After having wafted from grave to grave, story to story, I found myself at an incredible spot. It was a very special grave, the only one with flowers, it was clearly celebrated. I had guessed that it must be someone more important the numerous scientists, members of the royal family, officers, etc. I was curious to know who lie there and was truly humbled when I got to it. It was the tomb of an unknown soldier.
The grave of the unknown soldier is a remarkable story that has inspired many such memorial monuments around the world. Nobody but God knows the identity of the soldier who died fighting for his country, England. The body was brought from France to be buried at the Abbey on 11 November 1920. The grave, which contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from a quarry near Namur. On it is the following inscription, composed by Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster:
BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK
BROUGHT FROM FRANCE TO LIE AMONG
THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS OF THE LAND
AND BURIED HERE ON ARMISTICE DAY
11 NOV: 1920, IN THE PRESENCE OF
HIS MAJESTY KING GEORGE V
HIS MINISTERS OF STATE
THE CHIEFS OF HIS FORCES
AND A VAST CONCOURSE OF THE NATION
THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914-1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD
THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
The Abbey’s site details the idea, the story and more on the grave, such as “The idea of such a burial seems first to have come to a chaplain at the Front, the Reverend David Railton (1884-1955), when he noticed in 1916 in a back garden at Armentières, a grave with a rough cross on which were pencilled the words “An Unknown British Soldier,” and more: http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/unknown-warrior
And this BBC video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11710660
After spending a few minutes in silence in honor of the soldier I walked further ahead crossing very special tombs of the royalty and finally arrived at the Poet’s Corner. I had first learnt about the Poet’s Corner as a student of literature – every bio of an English writer often ended with, “he now lies buried at the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.” I always imagined the Corner to be like a graveyard in an open place, under trees – a garden befitting poets but this was a room within the Abbey and all tombs were organized one after the other, no romantic design but just the idea that all poets, writers and musicians such as Handel are buried in one large room.
I stood static in the middle of the room, taking in every detail. I knew that though my mind would have a strong impression, it wouldn’t remember the designs – so I drew out a pen and my copy of ‘Lamb’s Essays’ on the back cover of which, I made a rough sketch of the tomb placement. Checking the drawing almost a year after I made it, I found that the design has almost faded but thanks to the Internet and these images.
Of course my mind went crazy with imagination – what whispered conversations must these grave dwellers have – Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Dylan Thomas, Chaucer, artists from various periods – to be in the presence of these stalwarts was heartwarming but I couldn’t help think of the lonely grave of my Lamb, with his sister and the local gentry of Edmonton, in their cold grave at All Saint’s Edmonton. I didn’t hesitate to ask this question to one of the volunteers there – an aged woman with short hair whose picture I found online!
I asked the volunteer “I am sorry but I can’t help notice that Charles Lamb is not here – the greatest essayist of all times, a close friend of many buried here.” She didn’t have an answer of course but she seemed a little sorry – only just a little sorry. I had half a mind to request a meeting with the Mayor of London to make this request of moving the Lambs’ graves to Westminster Abbey but then I tried to imagine what Charles Lamb would think of that. He’s more likely to be happy forgotten, happier in that forgotten grave around which kids play with their pets – dogs and cats and old men like Peter, sit and brood in solitude. Charles Lamb wouldn’t push for it, no. So I wouldn’t either.
As much as I was impressed with the monuments of Keats and Shakespeare – it is Handel’s tomb monument that will remain with me for its beauty and exquisite craftsmanship.
After exiting the Poet’s Corner, I wandered around the Abbey and enjoyed its peace and calm. The one other amazing thing at the Abbey that I mentioned earlier in this post which was a sweet surprise and made my visit truly worthwhile is stumbling upon the ‘Britain’s Oldest Door.’ Now I am not sure if this is true, I’d trust the Abbey and I love the beauty of this detail so I’d really like to believe that this is the oldest door in Britain! Here’s what I found online about it: http://www.andersonlock.com/blog/door-built
The Abbey’s museum shop is boring and yet I found something to buy 🙂