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A Musical Tour of Westminster Abbey
with the Purcell Club

24th October 2009

As a small child walking home from school along rural lanes, my escort (two years older) dared me, in doom-laden tones, to put my hand into a small, dark hole in a derelict farm building wall. Certain of monsters, fearful and trembling, I finally plunged my arm in, and more hastily withdrew it to find that all digits were still intact! So it may have been for the schoolboy choristers of Westminster who dared to wriggle their hands into crannies in the tombs of kings and saints, or spend a night curled up on the Coronation chair.

Such anecdotes and history formed the fascinating narrative to our most excellent visit to Westminster Abbey on a recent mild October evening. We gathered in the dimly-lit cloister, some having arrived by coach and others braving delays on the train from Guildford. The atmospheric mood was enhanced as we were led by the choristers of the Purcell Club into the nave to begin our musical tour of the Abbey, now devoid of tourists and the bustle of its daily religious and secular life. The Purcell Club, named for the composer and organist at the Abbey from 1680-1695, is a group of former Abbey choristers, some of whom sang at the coronation of Elizabeth II. They raise money for a variety of charities through these acclaimed musical tours

Once seated, we raised our eyes to take in the subdued lighting from the Waterford crystal chandeliers deepening the shadows of aisle, clerestory and triforium, and adding tracery to the ribbed vaulting over a hundred feet above our heads. Our narrator began. Under the stern gaze of a number of stained glass bishops, we were told, in a voice echoing around the nave, of the Benedictine origins of the Abbey. As we digested the information that we were sitting in a 'royal peculiar' - a crown-held religious establishment that sits outside the normal authority of the church - the self-professed "decayed old choristers" treated us to a plainsong piece once sung by monks. There was nothing decayed about the voices!

And so through the Quire with its garish Victorian screen, the Lantern and glorious rose windows of the transepts, to the Sanctuary and St. Edward's Chapel, with tombs of five kings and three queens, not to mention the remains of the saint - a rarity in post-Reformation Britain. Our guide linked the history of the building with the social and royal history of first England, and then Britain, from the tenth to the twenty-first centuries. As the glories of Early English gothic architecture were revealed, the choristers sang a Kyrie, music by Handel (whose fine memorial in Poet's Corner includes the portrait taken from his death mask) and a stirring medieval song about seeing off the French at Agincourt. Seventeen monarchs from Edward the Confessor, Richard II, Elizabeth I (atop Mary Tudor in what must be an uncomfortable juxtaposition!), the Hanoverians, and their consorts, represent our nation's history of war, rivalry, statesmanship, dynasty and personal tragedy. Architecturally, the apogee is undoubtedly the fabulous fan vaulting of Henry VII's chapel. The original windows may have been lost but the ceiling is marvellous testament to the artistry of the master builders.

From Perpendicular pendants, Knights of the Order of the Bath banners, the foundation of the Tudor dynasty and a song by Wesley, we moved into the transepts and aisles that house the memorials and tombs of some of the greatest writers, musicians, statesmen and scientists that the world has known. In Chaucer, Purcell and Newton, via Wilberforce, Dickens, Darwin and Elgar, to name but a few, we are reminded of our rich cultural heritage. Arthur Sullivan's "The Long Day Closes," beautifully sung, put us in a fitting mood to appreciate our final stop at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior and the poignant reminder that the Abbey may house memorials to the great and the good, but it is also a monument in stone and story to very ordinary people.

We are hugely privileged to have seen it in this
way, with such informative and talented guides.

Rhona Gregson