Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Joy of London

Westminster Abbey may be composed of rigid stone, but the enthusiasm of the abbey’s employees makes the site warm and enjoyable. In conveying their passion for the site, the faces that illuminate the abbey make its long history come alive.

Gillian Sutch is just one of the many tour guides who shuffle through the Abbey each day, reciting facts and stories that are historical, cultural, and sometimes even comical. Wearing a bright red blazer and speaking in a soft-spoken voice, she complements the historical narrative of the Abbey with interesting factoids not evident to the average visitor.

She shares, for instance, that gems were stolen from Henry III’s tomb by tourists, and that the renowned playwright Ben Johnson is actually buried standing up. It is precisely these touches that make one’s visit not only engaging, but also memorable.

“It all just sort of ties up,” Sutch said wistfully of Poet’s Corner, a nook of the Abbey where British writers are buried. Sutch named the Corner as her favorite part of the site simply because “all the names [of the late poets] mean something.”

“Whether they’re buried here or elsewhere,” she added, “they’re remembered either way.”
After quitting a long career in public relations, Sutch became a certified tour guide in order to pursue history and London, her two passions.

“I love the history,” she said with a sheepish smile. “I hope to continue giving tours for as long as I can.”

Notably, just as much enthusiasm stirs outside of the Abbey where men and women dressed in maroon, short-sleeved robes bustle around assisting visitors. The Abbey employees, formally titled Marshals, are responsible for answering questions and promoting safety, though lucky visitors can press them for a few little-known facts about the site.

Johnny Hedges, a young Marshal with sweet blue eyes and tousled hair, is enthusiastic about sharing interesting facts about the Abbey that visitors might not hear on tours.

“Henry IV died in that chamber,” disclosed Hedges, pointing to a large, stone tower across the Abbey’s outdoor plaza. “His last wish was to die in Jerusalem and that’s called the Jerusalem chamber, so they put him in there.”

Hedges is stationed just outside of the gift shop, his greeting of a warm smile and slight nod among the last impression visitors receive before leaving the premises. He takes his somewhat fleeting interactions with visitors quite seriously. Although Hedges is only working at the Abbey until he returns to university in the fall, he is excited about having scored a summer gig at the Abbey, which he admits is his favorite place in London.

“I’m from Westminster and my mom teaches here,” he said with a grin. “I’m familiar with it. I really do love it.”

As with Sutch, Hedge’s love for Westminster is fully on display. And, while the Abbey’s towering arches and extensive cemetery make for an astounding experience, the joy that the abbey’s employees bring to the church is what makes a visit there truly memorable.

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