Big Churches in Little Europe: Collegiate Church of St Peter

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The Collegiate Church of St Peter, London

London, centre of Empire, possessor of a degree of self esteem which might be quite tragic were it to be held by a city like, say, Sydney. It is flanked on two sides: to the east is Her Majesty's Royal Palace, Tower of London. On the west is The Collegiate Church of St Peter known more commonly as Westminster Abbey. One is about army, tax, repression and power. The other is about God, authority and power. Both are made of stone, both are huge and both are naked statements of Normal royal power established in 1066 in the capital. God, King and Tax.

Westminster Abbey is undeniably a working church and it probably hosts more religious events in a day than most people eat meals. Items of interior decoration are as likely to be stamped EIIR (Elizabeth the Second, Regina/Queen) as they are "For God so Loved the World" or some other pious phrase.

So, given the fact that I obviously find this big church in little Europe slightly problematic, why have I elected to include it? Firstly if you are touring London you probably will end up visiting despite the vast sums they charge to go in. Secondly there is something profound in this bald statement by William the Conqueror of God's favour on William the Conqueror and his offspring.

I will admit that I have never paid to go in. There are enough services to nearly always allow me access when I feel like it (just tell the man at the gate you are going to a service and, if there is one scheduled in the next 15 minutes, he will let you in but you will be escorted through to make sure you go). Inside it is just another well maintained Gothic abbey church of stunning proportions. There are too many memorials for my taste and the concentration of dead kings and queens in one place is also rather too high for the public's general health (although they are probably less a threat to the public now they are dead than they were while they were alive). The choir is supremely competent. The twin towers out the front are 17th Century add-ons put up by Hawksmore. The staff wear bright red to show that they work directly for the Queen.

However, there is an amazing side to this place. Ignore the front door and just to the right (beside the shop - the fact that there is a retail emporium built-in shouldn't surprise you) is a relatively little (i.e. huge) gateway that lets you into a yard right beside the church (in fact there are two gates, I am talking about the one right next to the shop but the other west facing gateway has a treat behind it too).

Some days you will stopped from entering the yard but if you are insistent (and nice) they will give you a cloister pass for free (it is always free but they won't give them to people trying to sneak entrance into the church by the side door). The medieval abbey's preserved cloisters can be a patch of silence in a very, very busy part of London. They can also be full of school children eating sweeties at the cafe which is also in there. Therefore walk through the cloister to the northern corner and there will be a 13th century passage way to the little cloister and from there (head right), open only on very select days of the week, to the College Garden.

Suddenly you are in the quietest and most peaceful space ever. Visually you can see the Abbey, Parliament's two great towers (about 40 metres away) and everything else. You may even jump when Big Ben tolls right over your shoulder but all of these things are gone out of mind.

Head right to the far south western corner and there is a small water garden and a sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta of a naked man stretching up and over the T-piece of a cross, almost being lifted upwards through the length of wood. On one side is a man collapsing against the weight of the same piece of wood and on the other is third man being hefted up on the angle.

There are benches all around this piece of art. Walk around it, sit in various places. Take half an hour, take the rest of the day if you want.

As you leave, remember the placement of this statue is not an accident.

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