Westminster Abbey could charge visitors

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Westminster Abbey could introduce admission charges for the first time in its history as part of a bid to control the influx of visitors.

With the number of tourists to London soaring, churchmen fear that all sense of a hallowed place of worship is being lost.

A steering committee has been set up to investigate how to accommodate the visitors while restoring calm and dignity to the abbey.

Emma St John-Smith, a spokeswoman, said nothing had been decided yet, but charging was one option. "We are very conscious - and anyone who has been anywhere near Westminster Abbey at the height of the tourism season will be conscious - that we have a serious overcrowding problem. Future predictions point to unmanageable numbers," she said.

"Everybody feels that something has to be done to recover the calm and return the church to a semblance of peace and dignity."

The opening of the Eurostar train service has compounded the problem. Tour operators now refer to the "Westminster waiting-room" as day-trippers meet at the abbey before returning to the Continent.

Canon Anthony Harvey said: "The abbey is rather like Euston station, or one great cocktail party. The noise is deafening. At certain times, it has become dangerous."

Charging may be one way of controlling numbers. While the abbey has asked, for many years, for a fee for access to the royal chapels, access to the nave and cloisters is free.

However, the committee is also investigating whether it can employ better crowd-control techniques to manage the flow of visitors around the abbey. Another suggestion is the use of headphones or other technology to eliminate the need for noisy guides.

The abbey authorities hope to have made a decision on how to proceed by June or July, so they will be able to let travel firms know of their plans in time for next season. The aim is to have the new arrangements in place by Easter 1998.

Around 2.5 million people are thought to have visited the abbey last year. Numbers have grown considerably in recent years and up to another 10 million visitors are expected in London for the millennium.

Ms St John-Smith said that any decision on charging would not be based on financial considerations. But previous decisions by cathedrals to charge have been primarily motivated by the financial difficulties of running large and old buildings. In many cases, the decision has provoked controversy.

St Paul's Cathedral came under fire in 1991 for introducing a pounds 2.50 fee. The Very Rev Eric Evans, the dean, said they felt it was right to charge for sightseeing, although no one who wanted to worship had to pay. Around three-quarters of its visitors are from overseas.

Two years ago, Winchester Cathedral introduced a "voluntary donation" of pounds 2 per adult, pounds 1.50 for OAPs and students and 50p per child which helped stave off financial disaster. The average donation increased from 43p per visitor to 85p.

Ely Cathedral, in East Anglia, found the number of its visitors increased when it introduced a fee. As a possible lesson to Westminster, the cathedral authorities reported that people spent more time looking around than when entry was free.