Come with me inside Westminster Cathedral. Yes, you read that correctly. Not Westminster Abbey, scene of coronations and royal weddings but Westminster Cathedral, a ten minute walk away. One of the best kept secrets in Central London.
IS WESTMINSTER ABBEY THE SAME AS WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL?
No. The Abbey is a Church of England church and the Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church. Not just any old Catholic church but the mother church of Roman Catholicism in England and Wales.
HOW OLD IS WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL?
Not very old. Well not in Cathedral terms. It was built between 1895 and 1903. The interiors have yet to be finished. When the architect John Bentley died in 1903 he left no complete designs for the interior beyond saying that he intended there to be mosaics. Once the main building work was done, bare brick was the order of the day. When you walk in, marble floors stretch away from you, around you walls glimmer with mosaics but when you look up you are greeted with a sea of black London stock brick. At some point, maybe a wealthy benefactor will step in and the mosaics will cover the brick.
CAN ANYBODY VISIT WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL?
Yes. You do not need to be Catholic or even Christian. Even better, you do not have to pay to visit Westminster Cathedral. That having said, Westminster Cathedral is primarily a place of worship and most people do come here to pray or attend a service. You need to be respectful of the worshippers. If there is a service going on, do not wander around. Always take pictures with discretion and tact.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE AT WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL?
Outside, the building is like no other in London, it would look at home in an Italian piazza with its striped brick work, domed roof and high bell tower. Inside it is the mosaics and Eric Gill sculpture that you have come to see.
ERIC GILL AND WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL
Some of the very first sculptures that Eric Gill made are in the Cathedral as well as the last. When he was a young unknown sculptor and newly converted Catholic, Eric Gill was commissioned to carve fourteen stations of the cross. When the first of modernist panels was installed it was greeted with vitriolic comments but, by the time the fourteenth was in place on Good Friday 1918, people had come round. You will find the stations of the cross on the pillars surrounding the main nave.
For Gill’s last sculpture head over to the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs. Above the altar Eric Gill has carved not a crucified Christ but one triumphant in death flanked by St Thomas More and St John Fisher both executed by Henry VIII in 1535.
MOSAICS OF WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL
The interior of Westminster Cathedral is a geologists dream, there are over 100 different types of marble inlaid on the walls and floors. Many of the chapels are covered in glittery beautiful mosaics. As a rough rule of thumb the chapels on the right nearest the west door are the oldest ones getting newer as you head clockwise round the interior.
The Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine is dedicated to the people who first brought the gospel to England and was complete in 1903. Dotted around the walls you’ll find depictions of other early notable British Christians my favourites being St Cuthbert, St Edmund and the Venerable Bede. You will see graves marked by red cardinals hats around the Cathedral, these the former Archbishops of Westminster. Cardinal Basil Hume rests in the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine.
The Chapel of St Andrew is dedicated to all things Scottish even though the Cathedral’s reach only stretches to England and Wales. Not only are the walls and ceiling beautiful here, look down for amazing fishy marble inlays.
Boris Anrep mosaics on the floor the National Gallery are some of my favourite things, everybody else rushes off to see Monet but I’m standing there looking down. It was a joy to see his work in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament but on the walls this time. Most of his designs here are from the late Fifties and depict Biblical scenes, I confess that I’m not sure where this rather fine peacock fits in.
In 2003 Christopher Hobbs designed the mosaics for the Chapel of St Joseph. He had previously come up with a particularly striking version of St Alban, the first British martyr.
Most recent of all are Tom Phillips RA designs for the Chapel of St George and English Martyrs. He has opted for flames emblazoned with the names of the forty English martyrs. All of these twenty-first century mosaics have been installed by Tessa Hunkin.
WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL TOWER VIEWS
Once you’ve had your fill of carvings and mosaics head up. For a small fee you can ascend the Tower. Thankfully a lift whisks you up the 210 feet (64 metres for the metrically minded) to the top of the campanile. The Tower is home to Big Edward who at two and half tons is one of the biggest bells in the country. You are not here to see the bell, you are here to see the views. I loved looking down at the green domes that top the aisle of the cathedral.
Or you can look across modern rooftops, to St James’s Park and the Post Office Tower beyond.
Turn around and you can see Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and the Walkie Talkie building.
Music is also a draw to Westminster Cathedral. The choir is one of the best in the country and the organ is unique. It has two consoles from which it can be played, not that that affects the sound. Regular concerts are held and I have yet to visit when some kind a music either a rehearsal or for a service is not being played.
People who scurry up Victoria Street, might look in wonder at the byzantine building that suddenly appears among the modern office blocks but few actually venture in. Next time you are in Victoria why not pop inside Westminster Cathedral, it is only a five minute walk from Victoria Station or St James’s Park tube and free.
- Westminster Cathedral,
- Open: The first Mass is a 7am and the last at 5.30. Mass is held seven times a day, check the Cathedral website for times. Fit your mosaic marvelling around the Mass times.
- Cathedral admission: Free
- Tower Opening Times: Monday – Friday 9.30am – 5pm 6pm weekends
- Tower admission: Adults £6, family £12
- Nearest tube: Victoria and St James’s Park