Discovering England, and tips for doing it cheaply
Why do we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous travel experiences?
It's a question running over and over in my mind as I sit crammed into a tiny airplane seat, drinking a tiny can of coke and trying not to inadvertently touch the not-so-tiny guy in the next seat. Travel is a pleasure, of course, but it comes with a series of only sometimes-tiny pains.
I'm heading to London on this flight. After arriving, I'll spend a few days in the city, head into the Welsh countryside and finally finish in Scotland. I have a rail pass, which gives me the flexibility to hop on virtually any train whenever I want, and few lodging reservations. Almost anything could happen and the entire country is potentially on the itinerary.
But at the outset and as a former English major, perhaps it's inevitable that I'd remember one of the few passages from Shakespeare I still have memorized: Hamlet's ubiquitous "to be or not to be speech." Is it nobler, Hamlet wonders, to suffer the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," or to just give up?
Shakespeare wasn't writing for tourists, of course, but more than almost anything else life has to offer travel provides rich opportunities "to be." It's living, exaggerated, where the struggle against the slings and arrows of which there are many on any good trip have the greatest payoff.
This is the first of several posts on travel that I'll be writing while I'm gone. The goal is to share whatever I can learn while on the road, under the assumption that travel should be both ennobling and accessible. My travel companions and I also will be trying to spend as little money as possible, so expect posts on how to travel without breaking the bank. My feeling is that spending more money might mean a softer bed but it rarely produces more personal connections or cultural immersion.
The result is that I may walk away from this trip without much relaxation, but hopefully I'll also have learned and shared through these posts a little something about a place that has a bit of The Undiscovered Country.
Westminster Abbey on a budget • A shower of voices cascades through Westminster Abbey's weathered stone buttresses, the echoes splashing over the marble faces of England's greatest poets and kings. I'm seated around the corner from the choir so I can't see the singers, but it's almost better that way, as if shafts of light in the rose window are portals to another world.
Westminster Abbey is England's grandest church, and there are few better ways to experience it than bathed in the angelic chanting of the abbey boys choir. During the service an evensong, or the Anglican equivalent of the Catholic vespers the choir and priest sang Psalm 106, recited the Lord's Prayer and chanted an anthem about a healing tree of life. Every few minutes, we rose and recited verses with the choir. Between songs, the silences were haunted by reverberations that seemed to never end. I'm not an Anglican, but I didn't need to be to be moved by the beauty of the choir and the stone that soared upward in an architectural expression of divinity.
Begun by Edward the Confessor in the mid 1000s, the abbey which looks like but is not a cathedral holds thousands of tombs, including those of at least 17 monarchs. It remains, to this day, the place of coronation for new kings and queens. And in one corner lie the remains of the people who literally wrote the English language from Chaucer to Dickens to T.S. Elliot.
Though Westminster Abbey was first dedicated in 1066, the church as it appears today is, like many ancient European buildings, the product of many generations of work. Most notably, Henry III began the abbey in its current form in 1245. Construction continued for hundreds of years and the two towers over the main entrance weren't built until the 1700s.
Today, the work of all those generations is a historical and spiritual treat for travelers. Among other things, the church holds the coronation chair, which has been used by English monarchs since 1308, and the tombs of celebrities like Laurence Olivier. On my way out, I looked down and suddenly realized I was standing on a memorial to Winston Churchill.
There are so many marble statutes and memorials, in fact, that in some areas the abbey has the feel of an art gallery bursting at the seams. Statues of forgotten nobles and former heroes cluster together in cliques. On the floor, hundreds of years of foot traffic have worn some tombstones smooth.
Westminster is open to the public daily, but it's a pricey and touristy, albeit fascinating, activity.
As a result, I prefer to see Westminster the way it was intended: during a religious service. Services like the evensong I attended are free, less crowded and, in my experience, far more moving than the typical tourist visit. The tradeoff is less time to see the many statutes and historical markers, but there's so much to see that even paying visitors aren't likely to notice everything their first time.
Evensongs begins most days at 5 p.m. When I attended, we showed up about 10 minutes early, told the guard at the front gate we were there for the service and walked right in. There were plenty of empty seats and the entire thing last less than an hour.
If you go
Cost • Adults, 18 pounds; children 11-18, 8 pounds.
Hours • Normally Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Evensong • 5 p.m. daily except for Wednesdays; free.
More info • http://www.westminster-abbey.org/home