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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
41 - A school, an abbey and a church - all associated with illustrious names
Westminster School can date its origins back to the 12th century, when the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey were required by Pope Alexander III to provide a small charity school. Its continuous existence, however, is certain from the early 14th century. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, Henry VIII personally ensured the school's survival by statute, and his daughter, Elizabeth I, confirmed royal patronage in 1560 and is celebrated as the school's Foundress. Its independence from the Abbey came in 1868 with the Public Schools Act, since when it has enlarged considerably. Today it is considered to be one of the country's best private schools. To the east of Dean's Yard is Little Dean's Yard, which is not open to the public, and where more of the school's buildings are located, including the 17th century Ashburnham House. Famous pupils include Ben Jonson (1573-1637), John Dryden (1631-1700), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Lord Raglan (1788-1855) John Russell (1792-1878), A. A. Milne (1882-1953), John Gielgud (1904-2000), and, among those still living, Tony Benn, Stephen Poliakoff, and Martha Lane-Fox. Some of the more recent pupils remember dropping chalk onto the heads of tourists from the art room, or being punished by having to listen to records of Churchill's speeches.
At the northeast corner of the green I find a little yellow ashcan stuck on a post with a notice: 'Designated smoking area. For the benefit of all employees and visitors this area is designated for smoking. Please use the bins provided.' Also in the northeast corner of the Yard is an entrance to Westminster Abbey. I try to enter, as this is the first time that my route would, legitimately (staying as close to the 300 easting as possible) take me through a building. Unfortunately, a crimson-cloaked official insists that this is the group entrance, and that, by implication, only groups can enter. I am not a group, and so take the northwest exit from Dean's Yard, through a yellow sandstone archway, to emerge into a street called Sanctuary. Once upon a time, this may have been a quiet place but today it is full of traffic, double-decker buses, lorries, taxis, and a parked orange concrete mixer. Here too is the main tourist entrance to the Abbey.
Although some tourist books on London have whole chapters devoted to Westminster Abbey, and some historians' bookshelves have whole books devoted to the Abbey, and although it is probably the most historically important and feted building on the 300 easting, I am passing it by with but a cursory nod. I blame the crimson man. There is evidence of Romans on the site (although their main settlement was further east), but there is no clear record of Christianity here until Benedictine monks set up (in the 10th or possibly earlier) a small monastery on Thorney Island, a marshy area along the Thames. Edward the Confessor built a much more substantial church here in the 11th century, a picture of which is embroidered into the Bayeaux Tapestry. A few fragments of that Norman building still exist in the Abbey as it is today, a structure that has been built on progressively for a 1000 years. Henry III began a rebuild in the 13th century, which was continued by Richard II, Henry V and Henry VII. Sir Christopher Wren did some restoration in the early part of the 18th century; and the striking Gothick style west towers, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, were completed in 1745.
Oddly, perhaps, Westminster Abbey is not a cathedral, the seat of a bishop or even a parish church, but it does have a special kind of royal privilege (shared only with St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle). The Dean and Chapter, subject only to the Queen (and not the Church of England hierarchy), run the Abbey. For a 1,000 years, most English sovereigns have been crowned here, and many of them have been buried here too. In fact, the Abbey is packed, crammed full with monuments of one sort or another, memorials to some of Britain's most famous historical names (kings, prime ministers, writers and scientists). Since I can't mention them all, it seems appropriate, therefore, to mention only one: the black slab at the west end of the nave that was laid on 11 November 1920 in memory of the Unknown Soldier.
Next to the Abbey and dwarfed by it is St Margaret's Church. It was founded in the 12th century, rebuilt during the early 16th century in the Perpendicular style, and, since then, restored many times. It serves, and has done for centuries, as the parish church for the House of Commons. Samuel Pepys, John Milton and Winston Churchill all got married in the church, while Walter Raleigh and William Caxton are buried here.
My walk takes me right by the statue of Field Marshal Lord Raglan. He
stands on a marble column with lions around the plinth. The dedication is
just readable: 'In memory of those educated at Westminster School, wounded
in the Russian and Indian Wars AD 1854-1859 on the field of battle or from
wounds or sickness, some in early youth, some full of years and honours,
but who all alike gave their lives for their country. This column was erected
by their old school fellows in token of sorrow for their loss of pride in
their valour and in full assurance that their remembrance of their heroism
in life and death will inspire their successors at Westminster with the
same courage and self-devotion.'
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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