Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A Morning in Westminster

Tuesday 5 December 1995. It was no warmer than it had been the the night before. If anything the temperature was dropping as we got off a bus at Trafalgar Square and walked down Whitehall towards Westminster.

We walked down past lots of government buildings. This is the Foreign Office opposite the Cenotaph just visible at the left. More properly it is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Not a massively attractive building and in fact it was never considered such. The Victorians held a competition for its architectural design ( along with a War Office and grounds) but the selection committee knew little about architecture. In fact, perhaps realising this they co-opted two architects, but not well known ones and they disagreed with the committee (hardly surprisingly). The design chosen was not that of the outright winner but the one who came second in more than one category - this (so it was argued) outranked the two architects who came first in only one category. George Gilbert Scott had designed a Gothic building, but before he got to build it, Palmerston was voted in as Prime Minister and wanted a Classical not Gothic building. Whilst Scott had won the competition and couldn't be dismissed, Palmerston insisted he produce a new Classical design, perhaps hoping Scott would quit of his own accord. He didn't. He produced a new design in a style he was unfamiliar with and it got built and virtually no-one has liked it since...

King Charles Street with the archway connecting the Foreign Office (right) with the Treasury on the left. The Treasury has since been faced with stone to match the other buildings of Whitehall.

By the time we got down to the end of Whitehall the sun came out briefly, allowing this brighter view of the Methodist Central Hall. Dating from 1911, it was built to commemorate the centenary of John Wesley's death. Apart from being a Methodist church, it has conference facilities, meeting rooms and an art gallery.

It was from here that the football world cup was stolen from display in 1966, the cup though not the thief, being recovered in time for England to win the competition a few months later.

Just a couple of minutes later and the sky was once more dull... We decided to go into Westminster Abbey. You can go in for free, but if you want to see the tombs of kings and queens you pay to go deeper into the abbey. In 1995 we paid £3 each. Photography wasn't allowed, but most of the sights are easily found on Google anyway... now...

This is my sketch of the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor. King of England from 1042 to 1066 he rebuilt, in the year of his receiving the crown, on the site of a previous church that had been built where tradition told of an appearance by St Peter in a vision to a fisherman. The vast majority of what we see - perhaps everything of what we see - dates from Henry III's rebuilding which commenced in 1245. However traces of Edward's church survive in the lower parts of the Norman undercroft of the Great School, which includes a door that is said to have been a part of the original Saxon building.

King Henry III raised this shrine and had the saint's body placed in it. He placed it there himself in fact - he, his brother and two sons carried the coffin themselves. Niches in the sides of the shrine allowed pilgrims to get as close as possible to the saint's relics. Too close by far after a few hundred years. The tomb fell into disrepair and in the Middle Ages the saint's bones could be seen, some being stolen. Records show that someone offered for sale a knife with a handle allegedly made from one of the saint's bones, although it is not known if this really was the case. The coffin was damaged during an accident when scaffolding was being dismantled after the coronation of James II and a gold chain and crucifix were removed and given to James. However they were stolen during his flight from England in 1688.

Lots of royal burials are to be found in the area of Edward's Sanctuary. To one side lie Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, with her half-sister, "Bloody" Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon at her side. In the similar chapel on the opposite side of the Confessor's shrine lies Mary, Queen of Scots.

We visited the cafe before leaving the Abbey and had found Poets Corner and memorials to musicians and Prime Ministers. It should be noted, that the existence of a memorial does not necessarily mean that the person is buried in the Abbey. There are, however 17 kings and ruling queens (as opposed to queens of a ruling king) buried in the Abbey. Well worth a visit and paying to go into the inner areas. I would love to go back and do it again in fact.

It was bitterly cold as we came out and walked down past the Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster and passed under the shadow of St Stephen's Tower commonly, but wrongly, known as Big Ben. Big Ben is actually the bell that strikes the hour.

On the opposite side of the road on the edge of Westminster Bridge is the statue of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe who occupied the northern half of today's East Anglia during the early Roman occupation of Britain. Boudicca is the spelling used by Tacitus in his records. It is thought Boadicea was a spelling mistake from a Middle Ages translation. However it was the spelling used in a popular poem by William Cowper in 1782 and became the dominant spelling from the 19th century. Her husband was a client king of the Romans and had borrowed heavily to fund his lifestyle. On his death the loan became due for repayment and he had tried to pass on his reign which was not part of his bargain with Rome. Boudicca was publicly flogged and her daughters raped before her eyes. Designed to break the spirit of the Iceni, this treatment simply bolstered their resolve behind their Queen. With the main Roman army off druid hunting in Anglesey, she swept down the country, sacking Colchester, London and St Albans. She took no prisoners or slaves. Anyone she found was killed, carrying out far worse barbarism than had been visited on herself or her daughters. London has an identifiable layer of earth from that period that speaks of destruction by fire. It is estimated that around 80,000 people died during the destruction of the three towns. She was eventually defeated by the Romans, though it is not clear whether she was killed, committed suicide or otherwise.

We ventured onto Westminster Bridge to take some photos of the Houses of Parliament. It started to snow at this point and the temperature was desperately cold. I good naturedly asked a traffic warden what sort of weather this was to inflict on visitors. "Ow, it's laaarvely, innit?" she replied...

We waited until Big Ben struck the eleventh hour and then decided we had to find somewhere both warm and with a seat! London is extremely hard on the feet - as it seems to hit the bottom of them an awful lot of times! We booked tickets for a boat trip down to the Tower of London.

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