The temple of gloom

It takes an Indiana Jones to bypass the hordes heading into London's Holy Grail - Westminster Abbey.
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
It is the ultimate club for celebrity corpses, from Edward the Confessor to Dylan Thomas. Two-and-a-half million people each year shuffle round to see the tombs of crowned heads. Or the headless, in the case of the top attraction, Mary Queen of Scots, reburied next to her arch- enemy, Elizabeth I, by her son James, in a funerary equivalent of a two- fingered salute.

You enter the nave. It is meant to be a quiet area but is swarming with visitors. To the left of the nave is the entrance to the Royal Chapel. It is here that you must pay if you want to proceed. In here you will find the tombs of Edward the Confessor, two Henrys, two Edwards, a Richard, the Princes in the Tower, etc. But once through, it is as if you have stumbled upon a monumental jumble sale.

Westminster Abbey should be one of our best run tourist attractions, but there seems little freedom for the visitor, and to see anything worth the journey there you have to pay.

Even in the places you have paid to enter, a pompous verger reminds tourists to "keep moving". When one of the monuments does catch your eye, you cannot backtrack - it is a one-way route. And there are constant reminders, wherever you are in the abbey, that they "kindly receive donations".

Some of the most dignified monuments are covered by what look like body- bags. As you enter, the monuments to national heroes are hidden by stacks of chairs, as if it were a parish hall, and throughout the abbey tombs are roped off with the message "Please do not touch".

I have never seen so many "N" signs: No photography (postcards cost at least 25p). No video-cameras. No stamps sold here. No touching. No entry. No credit cards at this till. It is almost un-Christian.

I saw two old dears giving up their search around the abbey and diving for the door marked "Refreshments". Instead of a teashop, they found one makeshift trolley in a pigeon-plagued cloister, selling "Coffees of the world" for pounds 1 a cup. There are no tables or chairs. You may find a stone windowsill to squat on.

On to Poets' Corner. This is stuffed with men, with only two small memorials to women (George Eliot and Jane Austen). I can't hold that against the abbey today - but it can help the fact that many of our "resting" theatrical luvvies are fenced off as in a building site. I couldn't see Noel Coward or Sybil Thorndike. It shouldn't be like this. It would take only a few days to rethink the abbey's signs, organise guidebooks, and send visitors away closer to God rather than praying to get out.

One factor that is sure to spoil your visit is a severe overcrowding problem. Emma St John-Smith, Westminster Abbey's press officer, admits: "We have got to do something radical to recover the calm." She says that visitor figures are going up: official estimates put the annual number at 2.6 million, which is regarded as more than the abbey can handle. "We're ruling nothing out and nothing in," she says. Are there any plans to provide a cafe? "We have a small coffee stand in the cloister and another outside the gate, and we're not intending to expand."

There are plans to make visitors pay for entry to the whole abbey, rather than just the Royal Chapel. "The charges aren't to make money, but to limit the number of visitors." But Ms St John-Smith insists that "genuine" worshippers and ex-service personnel wishing to view the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as opposed to the hordes of tourists (how will they distinguish the two groups?), will still be admitted free. We shall see.

Pit stop

After all that, you need to hike, bus or cab it north to Leicester Square and cool down at WC2 Haagen-Dazs on the Square (0171-287 9577). Don't be discouraged by the long queue in front of the shop at weekends; it is probably for the take-away counter. For those wanting to eat from the a la carte menu, tables are available in the attractive, bright and lofty-ceilinged restaurant, which has a distinctly Continental ambience. The ice-creams are, of course, the main attraction, in one-, two- or three-scoop portions (pounds 1.30/pounds 2.20/pounds 2.93) with all sorts of toppings, or in splits and sundaes (pounds 3.95). The patisserie items, however, are not in the same class as the ice-creams. Three high-chairs are provided. Small portions are available for little ones, and a children's menu is a possibility this year. No smoking. Seats 65; open 10am-midnight (Fri and Sat to 1am).

From Egon Ronay's Guide `... And Children Come Too' (Bookman, pounds 9.99)

Spires to aspire to

Winchester Cathedral (01962 853137). Open all week, 9.30am to 6.30pm. Admission: no fee, but voluntary contributions are gratefully received. Attractions: Winchester Bible, burial site of Jane Austen. The cathedral is currently running workshops for primary school children.

Canterbury Cathedral (01227 762862). Open all week, 9am to 5pm, Sundays 12.30pm to 2.30pm and 4.30pm to 5.30pm. Admission: pounds 2.50 adults, pounds 1.50 students, seniors and children. Attractions: book and gift shops, refreshments, acoustic and guided tours. Tombs of Black Prince and Henry IV, and stained glass collection.

Chester Cathedral (01244 324756). Open all week, 7.30am to 6.30pm. Admission: a donation of pounds 2 a visitor is requested. Attractions: gift shop, refectory; organ recitals at lunchtime on Thursdays are open to the public.

Salisbury Cathedral (01722 323279). Open daily, May to August, 8am to 8.15pm. Admission: pounds 2.50 adults, pounds 1.50 seniors and students, 50p children, pounds 5 family groups. Attractions: tours of tower, pounds 2 a person; free tours of cathedral. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, tours of west front, pounds 2 adults, pounds 1 children over 11. Shop, refectory, brass-rubbing and name- search. Chapter house (Magna Carta) 30p a person, children free if accompanied.

Guildford Cathedral (01483 5652870). Open all week, 9.30am to 5pm. Admission: a donation of pounds 2 a visitor is suggested. Attractions: cathedral book shop, gift shop and refectory; a new cathedral, fine example of a modern place of worship.

Glastonbury Abbey (01458 832267). Open every day, 9am to 6pm. Admission: pounds 2.50 adults, pounds 2 seniors, students and children between five and 15 years old, family ticket pounds 5.50. Groups of 10 people or more: pounds 2 adults, 80p children. Attractions: ruined abbey, gift shop, cafe and modern museum.

York Cathedral (01904 624426). Open every day, 7am to 6pm. Admission: free, but donations of pounds 2 a head are requested from large groups. Attractions: restaurant, cafe and shop. Every Saturday from 19 July until 20 September, organ recital at 6.30pm, cost pounds 4. Views from central tower amazing, carvings in chapter house, treasury, large collection of stained glass.

St David's Cathedral, Wales (01437 720392). Open all week, 8am to 6pm. Admission: free, but all contributions gratefully received. Attractions: simple refreshments, two gift shops. Concerts at 8.15pm every Tuesday, tombs of Edmund Tudor and Bishop Henry Gower.

St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh (0131-2259442). Open 9am to 7pm weekdays, 9am to 5pm Saturdays, 1pm to 5pm Sundays. Admission: free, but a donation of pounds 1 a visitor is suggested. Attractions: refreshments, gift shop, 900 years' worth of history.

King's College Chapel, Aberdeen (01224 272137). Open all week, 9am to 5pm, student guides 2pm to 5pm Sundays. Admission: free. Attractions: refreshments, gift shop, tomb of Bishop Elphinstone.

Comments