Monday, 28 December 2009

THE Westminster Abbey Walk

David wishes you all an Abbey New Year (ouch).

[Right, that’s enough with the rotten puns: you’re fired. Regards, David.]

'What I love about London Walks is the degree of granularity that you get.’

Thus spake a very satisfied (American) London Walker a while back. Couldn't have put it better ourselves.

So how about an example or two of that ‘degree of granularity’ from our Abbey Tour. And, look, I'm not saying that you'll hear these exact words - or observations even - from every London Walks guide. They're offered up here as representative examples of the kind of thing we do.

Okay, that's enough preliminaries - let's get stuck in.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

But what dust!

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, for example. The tomb is, well, dusted with a composite of soils from the six great World War I battlefields in Flanders and France: The Somme, Ypres, Arras, etc. It's a precise reversal of the terms of Rupert Brook's great World War I poem, ‘if I should die, think only this of me, that there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.’ A precise reversal because by virtue of that French and Flanders soil, that spot in the Abbey is a corner of England that is forever ‘a foreign field’.

And yet… And, yes, here comes one of those London Walks ‘connections’: the Abbey, that monument to the Norman strain (as the most English of novelists put it), is the most French of our cathedrals.

And while we're at it, let's throw in a few wreathes. When Elizabeth Bowes Lyon married the future George VI in the Abbey she laid her bouquet at the tomb in tribute to her brother Fergus, who was killed at the Battle of Loos. Precedent and instant tradition all rolled up into one. Because since then every royal bride repeats that gesture. Indeed, at the end of her life the Queen Mother, who had of course been that young bride, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, in 1923, requested that her funeral wreath be laid there. Her request was of course fulfilled. Her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, laid the wreath the day after the funeral. And the counterpoint? In 1933 the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg laid a wreath with a swastika on the tomb. Throw in. Throw on. Throw up. Throw out. In short, a British war veteran called time on the Rosenberg manoeuvre - he threw the thing in the Thames.

And for some more dust, for another foreign field - and it really doesn't come any more wondrous than this - legend has it that the tomb of Edward the Confessor rests on earth brought from the Holy Land!

Nearby, the tomb of Eleanor of Castile, Edward I's much loved Queen. It's surmounted with a wonderful effigy of the good lady. Look closely at the pillows her crowned head rests on. Can you see the decorative motif all over them? (For that matter, they're also all over the tomb slab the effigy rests on.) Got them in your purview? Yes, they're castles and lions. Naturally. Because she was the daughter of Ferdinand, the King of Castile (castle) and Leon (lion). What's in name? Well you might ask. Especially in this instance. Because her Castilian name was Leonor. Which anglicized to Alianor and ultimately to Eleanor. Leonor of Leon - it's almost cue the MGM lion!

Castles and lions. As our novelist put it, ‘in no other cathedral is one so conscious of the dead and of the families of the dead; one might be standing at a rehearsal for the resurrection.’

Standing at that rehearsal, standing before those tombs - Eleanor's for example - a great guide can nudge the thing along. Look at Eleanor's pretty tresses. Edward will have stroked them many a time. The 15 - or it may have been 17 - children she bore him bear more than ample witness to that. As does her accompanying him on all of his military campaigns - even his crusade-lite. Lite because his ‘force’ was only about 1,000-strong. C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. A 1,000 trying to do what 100,000 hadn't been able to do. It almost cost him his life. An ‘envoy’ from the emir of Jaffa knifed him in the arm. The knife was tipped with poison. The wound became gangrenous, the arm swelled up hideously. One version has it that Eleanor sucked the poison from the wound. The other maintains that a surgeon cut away all the rotting and surrounding flesh but that Eleanor had to be dragged away from what must have been a horrific surgical procedure. She wanted to stand by her man.

And to fade out? Maybe this bit of ‘granularity’. For more than 300 years wax candles burned round her tomb without dimming. Those flames must have seemed, well, eternal.


A London Walk costs £10 – £8 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at

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