The summer brightness meant a very hot day with record temperatures, but this did not deter the vast number of tourists visiting this historic building. We were able to overcome the double queues entering the Great North Door with our Parish Pass – avoiding the entrance charge of £15 (senior rate). Paying visitors contribute around 80% of the Abbey income. All bags are checked before entering and queuing will take some time.
I was immediately overwhelmed by the ordered chaos inside with visitors herded in a clockwise direction so that people could partly retrace the steps of William and Kate (Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) walking down the Nave at their wedding. The one-way system made it difficult to visit or re-visit certain features, but an army of Abbey guides were available to offer assistance. The Abbey is home to kings, queens, statesmen, soldiers, poets, priests and heroes – a must-see living pageant of British history. Free audio guides in 8 different languages mean visitors moving slowly while they listen to essential information. This means blockages at every turn and the feeling that one is travelling on the tube during the rush hour, or at a West End Department store on the first day of the sales!
There was no escaping the insatiable appetite for English history by foreign tourists. Over a million visitors a year results in queues for everything – tombs, chapels, toilets, cafe and gift shop. Unfortunately it felt more like a stately home on a weekend, and the feeling of church had gone. There must be a quiet time to visit, but it was not today!
The 700 year old building also boasts that religious services attract many thousands of visitors, but I found it difficult to find any quiet place or a chance for private prayer. Every coronation since 1066 and many royal weddings and funerals have taken place here. Pope Benedict attended a service in 2010. There are many regular daily services but I did not discover where they were held. Thank goodness interior photography is banned – that would have been an extra burden to cope with.
Try to visit the Abbey gardens – Cloister Garth, St Catherine's Chapel Garden and Little Cloister (College Garden is only open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). Do not miss Poets' Corner, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior and the Coronation chair.
The well stocked Gift Shop again suffers from chronic overcrowding and it is difficult to get near enough to see what you would like to purchase. A smaller less frantic Cellarium shop (near the cafe) is easier to cope with. The cafe has a set menu and is fairly expensive so we ate at the Methodist Central Hall (across the road) in the basement self service Wesley Cafe and highly recommend this for the prices and range of food available.
If time allows, visit the small church of St Margaret's next door to the Abbey – free entry but donations requested.