As another epic royal wedding nears it's time to take a look at what's changed in London, especially in its historic churches, since the wedding of Charles and Diana.
So you hate royal weddings. Or you love them. Or maybe you’ve caught yourself attending to arcane details of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s plans for April 29, but you can’t say exactly why.
Here’s one reason: They defy time.
Start with just the idea of monarchy. It may be a deadly serious issue in the Middle East, but as practiced in
Britain of late, it all seems so quaint and bygone. Who else in the 21st century gets to walk a red carpet without an agent taking 10 percent?
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Yet in London for William and Kate’s wedding you can count on a Gothic church, a carriage procession from that church to Buckingham Palace, great queues of commoners and vast inventories of souvenir spoons. To watch a royal wedding is to imagine a world that doesn’t change.
But it does. I recently spent several days at London landmarks reminding myself of what’s been built or transformed — and discovering how dramatically the churches have raised their tourist prices — since London’s last epic (“epic” being the operative word) royal wedding in 1981 of Charles and Di.
It seemed logical to start with St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is where Prince Charles wed Lady Diana Spencer (although it’s not where their son William will wed Kate; they’ll marry at Westminster Abbey).
Three decades ago, it cost a tourist nothing to stroll the cathedral’s checkerboard floor — and what a floor it is. From it, you gaze up, up, up into the overwhelming 365-foot dome designed in the late 17th century by Christopher Wren, London’s original star architect.
And when Charles and Diana married here in 1981, it was a massive occasion. The BBC estimated 600,000 people in the streets and 750 million watching televisions worldwide that day.
The couple’s first son, William, was born less than a year later, and a second son, Harry, followed in 1984. The couple separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996, just a year before Diana’s death with two others in a Paris car crash. When Prince Charles quietly married Camilla Parker Bowles in a civil ceremony in 2005, it was at Windsor Guildhall, far from here.
These days it’s free to see St. Paul’s if you’re worshipping. But tourists will pay about $24 for adults and $9 for most children, with a slight discount for families. Some days, there is a fast-track line for people who have prepaid their admission fee online.
There’s no doubt that it costs a fortune to keep the place whole as so many visitors troop through. But in my few moments by the entrance, I heard two British visitors hesitate at the cost. “I’ll give it a miss and come back later,” one man said. The other planned on returning just before closing, hoping to slip in for free.
Once you’re in, if your legs are willing and your nerves can take the close quarters of the stairwell, climb the steps (257 or 259 steps, depending on who’s counting) to the Whispering Gallery, enjoy the view and test the acoustics (said to make whispers audible at 100 feet).
Just 119 more steps will take you to the Stone Gallery and its sweeping balcony views of the city skyline, including all sorts of strangely shaped skyscrapers that have risen in the last decade.
For the fittest of travelers, 152 more steps will take them to the Golden Gallery, about 280 feet above the floor. I can’t tell you about that view because it was a cold and cloudy day, and I was tired. Down, down, down I clambered to the crypt, where I could sprawl on the carpet and be surrounded by “Oculus,” a 30-minute series of 270-degree films, unveiled in July and shown continuously.
With images flickering on three walls and the score resounding deeply, “Oculus” traces the cathedral through the centuries, from the Great Fire of London in 1666 that destroyed its predecessor to the World War II bombings of London in 1940-1941 to the rousing sounds of a contemporary choir rehearsal. See it.
Then step out of the cathedral and follow the pedestrian masses heading south. You’re about to do something nobody could do here 30 years ago: stroll across the Thames on a footbridge.
The Millennium Bridge, a few blocks south of St. Paul’s, is a steel-suspension span, about 1,000 feet long, that puts you into a parade of international visitors who tend to grin and linger even in raking winter winds. The bridge opened in June 2000 — and was shut down within days because its lateral movements gave many people the willies.
It reopened in 2002 after a steadying retrofit and can surely be credited for tempting tourists toward the implausible hulk at its southern end.
In 1981, when Charles and Diana married, this vast building was the oil-fired Bankside Power Station, designed by the same architect who sprinkled Britain with those beloved red telephone boxes (Giles Gilbert Scott). But oil prices had grown prohibitively high. That year, authorities closed it.
When the site reopened in 2000, it was as a world-class museum — the Tate Modern, a haven for art since 1900 and temptingly visible from the viewing decks of St. Paul’s. Many of its 4 million annual visitors pay to see special exhibitions, but it costs nothing to roam the permanent collection or Turbine Hall, the gaping ground-floor space in which the museum displays new commissioned work each year.
What else couldn’t you do in London in 1981? Here’s a partial list:
Glide on a Boris Bike:
Notice the many Barclays Cycle Hire stands? They started popping up around town last summer, and there are dozens now. Londoners call them Boris Bikes, after Mayor Boris Johnson. For a few British pounds, you can grab one of the light blue two-wheelers from a stand, ride, then leave it at a stand near your hotel and walk home. It takes some nerve to share the lanes with London traffic, especially on the busiest thoroughfares, especially as an American accustomed to the other side of the street. But I did it in Soho and lived.
Buy a snarky commemorative plate:
Soon after the William and Kate engagement announcement, the people at KK Outlet Gallery, in East London’s Hoxton Square, commissioned some cheeky designers to create unofficial collector plates.
“Thanks for the day off,” one says, referring to the national holiday for the wedding, which falls on a Friday.
“It should have been me,” another says.
Despite a price tag of about $36 each, plus shipping, the gallery sold about 3,000 the first week. “It crashed our website,” manager Danielle Pender said.
There was plenty of wedding cynicism afoot in 1981, I’m sure, but if anybody put it on a plate, I haven’t found it yet on eBay.
See open-air Shakespeare on the old Globe’s old turf:
Next door to the Tate Modern is Shakespeare’s Globe, an open-air theater that replicates the original Globe and stands just a few hundred yards from the site where Shakespeare and Lord Chamberlain’s Men put on their shows four centuries ago. Conceived by American actor and director Sam Wanamaker (who died in 1993), this Globe opened in 1997 and offers shows from April through October (www.shakespearesglobe.com), with tours and an exhibition area open year-round.
Look down from the Eye: Was it really a good idea to plunk down an overgrown carnival attraction just across the river from Big Ben, perhaps London’s most beloved landmark? I wasn’t so sure, but I bought a ticket to the Eye anyway, largely because there was no line that night. (The price is about $55 per adult for the no-waiting ticket. In summer, reserve in advance.)
I boarded one of the 32 egg-shaped, glass-walled capsules as the Eye — which resembles a giant Ferris wheel — continued its stately rotation and rose over the city with a dozen of us inside, the Thames River below and the city lights sprawling for a miles. From the highest point of the 30-minute ride, about 440 feet up, you can admire the tower and green roof of Big Ben as they rise below you (about 315 feet tall) across the river.
Westminster Abbey: From the Eye, it’s a 15-minute walk to Westminster Abbey, where William and Kate are to be wed at 11 a.m. April 29 (3 a.m. in Seattle).
The abbey is as intricate as St. Paul’s is vast, and there may be no better place to see a sunbeam stream through stained glass and strike a stone smoothed by time.
The church will close some days before the wedding for rehearsals and security. When it reopens after the wedding, you won’t be alone — visitor lineups are common — and you’ll pay to enter (except for services). In the 1980s, visitors could enter the abbey at no cost (although a few areas had a fee).
Since the late 1990s, church leaders have sought to cover more of their costs by charging all visitors who aren’t worshipping. Adults pay about $26; a family of four, about $61.
Westminster Abbey’s history is extraordinarily long. William the Conqueror was crowned on this site in 1066. As was Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 (after assuming the throne in 1952). About 3,000 of Britain’s best-known men and women have been buried here, and in 1997, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was held here.
For the wedding of her older son, The Wall Street Journal has forecast a TV audience of 2 billion, a combined Internet and radio audience of 400 million and a likely turnout of 800,000 in the streets of London.
Once your eyes have adjusted to the dim light inside the abbey, you notice the march of historic names across its stone markers. Geoffrey Chaucer. Mary, Queen of Scots. Isaac Newton. In the Poets’ Corner lie Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Browning.
There are a few new names since 1981, too, including Laurence Olivier, who died in 1989, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose statue is one of 10 the church added in 1998 to honor 20th- century Christian martyrs. In fact, King’s statue, which stands over the Great West Door, may have a better firsthand view of this royal wedding than any living American.