December 06, 2010

Kate and William's Westminster wedding: Sightseeing tips

Next year on April 29 Prince William and Kate Middleton will tie the knot in London's Westminster Abbey, site of British royal weddings, burials and coronations going back to the crowning of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, as King of England on Christmas Day 1066.

Those invited to the regal nuptials will experience not only the pageantry of the event but also the spectacular interior of this thousand-year-old Gothic masterpiece.

If your invitation gets lost in the mail and you have to visit Westminster Abbey on your own, not as an honored wedding guest but as a common tourist, a ticket will set you back 15 British pounds, about 25 bucks.

You'll face long queues, strict visiting times and prohibitions against photography and brass rubbing (head to St. Martin- in -the- Fields for that), but the soaring space and overpowering feeling that hundreds of the afterworld's most celebrated ghosts are walking or floating next to you render moot any administrative inconvenience.

One of my favorite rooms in the world is in Westminster: the Chapter House.

I visited back in the days when entry was free, there were no lines, you could buy paper inside the church and rub brass plaques and grave markers to your heart's content and shoot pictures until you ran out of film or flashbulbs. (Remember those?)

After I shot this photo of the Chapter House, an octagonal stone room rich with sculpture, stained glass, wall paintings and a medieval tile floor so smoothly polished that the sun paints a second set of colored glass windows across its entire expanse, I sat on one of the benches built along the room's perimeter and imagined the people who'd sat on these benches centuries before me.

The Chapter House was the business end of the abbey, so to speak. Monks gathered here to pray then discuss and plan their order's mission, tasks and daily work. In 1257 the King's Council, a precursor to Parliament, met in this room, and the early body of the House of Commons sat here, too, before moving to the great, gothic Parliament building just around the corner from Westminster. The abbey's great nave and lacy chapels hosted pomp, circumstance and services to feed the spirit, but the Chapter House was where the nuts and bolts of running an organization, and a nation, were hammered out.

If you get inside Westminster, whether on April 29 or some other date, don't miss sitting awhile and communing with the ghosts of the Chapter House.