A damp rainy morning and by some miracle, no line to speak of. Walked in and down the aisle, my head on a swivel to the left and right. It’s like picking your way through the attic of your powerful and wealthy grandmother, if your grandmother lived for over a thousand years and was venerated as a saint. It’s crammed with treasures, piled alongside, behind, beneath, and on top of each other. Marble effigies and mosaic floors, embroidered cushions and medieval paintings, stained glass and wood carving, and gilding and banners. Piety meets pageantry.
The distinguished and the holy are here, but also those with the cash and connections. Memorials commemorate those who are buried elsewhere.
The first time I looked down, I was standing on Darwin. Charles Darwin! Origin of the species, Voyage of the Beagle Darwin. The vary same Darwin who confessed he lost his faith in a benevolent God after witnessing parasitic wasp larvae devour a caterpillar from the inside out. I was equally delighted and shocked, and that moment set the tone for the day. Nor is he the only man of science honored here. Haley of the eponymous comet. Stephen Hawkins, with a depiction of a black hole. Sir Isaac Newton, with a bevy of putti frolicking at his feet.
All the while the velvet gravel of Jeremy Irons’s voice on the audio guide was murmuring cogent facts about the Abbey in my ears. That’s a lovely experience in and of itself.
Nobility, unless Shakespeare wrote about them, aren’t what thrills me. Writers and poets are another story. The bard has a fancy monument, as he should, but what was most deeply moving to me was finding the names of authors I loved in Poet’s Corner.
It’s a veritable Valhalla of writers. Miss Austen is here, and the Brontë sisters. Chaucer, Dickens, and the poet Gerald Manly Hopkins. Lewis Carrol, and C. S. Lewis, who opened the door into Narnia, humorist P.G. Wodehouse of Jeeves fame. Many more, but these are writers who shaped my worldview.
I hastened back to the entrance for the Verger tour (setting the alarm on my phone proved extremely useful). Got lost, was directed to go under the arches, and went the wrong way again. But seriously, under the arches? Look up. There’s nothing but arches. Fortunately, the staff had their eye on me. I was set on the right path and made it in time.
The verger was straight out of Hollywood casting, white-haired, twinkly-eyed, black-cassocked. He efficiently herded his flock from point to point and put the great and good into context with gentle humor.
Some highlights: mosaic was pilfered from King Edward the Confessor’s shine by pilgrims eager for a sanctified souvenir. They plucked the sides of his shrine bare.
It’s even more evident here, where mosaics are missing as high as guilty hands could reach, and intact above.
An unexpected thrill was being seated in the choir stalls, while the Verger explained the significance of who sits where, and the purpose of the elaborate screen that conceals the congregation from the celebrants.
After the tour ended I stayed several hours more, reading inscriptions and looking at faces.
I can tell you what all the inscriptions said in two words.