Faith at the Heart of the Nation

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© 2017 THE DEAN AND CHAPTER OF WESTMINSTER

It is virtually impossible to find a building more steeped in British history than the spectacular structure of Westminster Abbey. Although sections of the present building date from the 1200s, its history dates even further back. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Abbey has been in constant use and importance in the life of past and present royal families. Still used for church services today, Westminster Abbey welcomes visitors to tour the sacred building and marvel at the architecture and the many wonders hidden inside.

There is a discrepancy about the origins of the first church built on this site, however, historical evidence has been confirmed for the years subsequent to the death of Edward the Confessor at the very beginning of 1066. Children are taught at an early age about the Battle of Hastings that followed the death of this holy king, but little to no emphasis is put on the use of Westminster Abbey at that time, nor in the lives of future monarchs.

Visiting the Abbey will provide all the information about its uses and significance to various Kings and Queens of England. Commentary through an audio guide explains the events of different years that involved the Abbey’s use and development and, although no written information is displayed in the building, a full account of the history is available for purchase in a souvenir guide.

Originally, the church founded by Edward the Confessor stood in roughly the same place as the current Abbey, however, its surroundings would have looked completely different to the built up area that exists today. Over a thousand years ago, the Westminster area was on the very outskirts of London, a city which had not yet expanded to its contemporary grand size. Not only was the church located in the suburbs, it stood on a boggy, inhospitable island known as Thorney. Surrounded by many tributaries of the River Thames, it was not the welcoming district it is today.

The current building was erected over hundreds of years, beginning during the reign of Henry III (crowned 1216-1272). As a devotee to the canonised St Edward (the Confessor), Henry wished to demolish the existing church and construct a spectacular structure in the European Gothic Style in the saint’s honour. St Edward, who had been buried in his own construction, was provided with his own shrine. St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel still remains in the centre of the Abbey, unfortunately, due to fragility and age, visitors are unable to enter.

Little is known about who was responsible for the design of what was to become Westminster Abbey, but the three main stone masons involved in the raising of the building have been recorded as Henry of Reyns (d1253), John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley (d1285). Although influenced by French cathedrals, the continental style was simply appropriated rather than copied. In order to make the building unique to England, as well as contain the highest vault (102ft/31m), certain aspects were altered from the geometrical system. This includes a single aisle, a lengthy nave and wide transepts. The stone and marble sculptures add to the Englishness of the building.

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Great West Door (Hazel Stainer 2017)

The façade of the Abbey, for which it is most famous, is as impressive as its interior. In order to keep its magnificent appearance, Westminster Abbey has been refaced several times, and may no longer resemble the original building. Architects, such as Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and James Wyatt (1746-1813), have done a great deal of work on the building over the centuries. The latest major restoration took place between 1973-1995.

It is not clear who is responsible for the carvings, statues and effigies, but these are in over abundance in and out of the Abbey. Many Kings and Queens of England have been laid to rest under elaborate shrines and memorials that are so intricate it is difficult to believe that they were produced by the hands of a human being. And it is not only the royals who have been subjected to this lavish treatment; many members of the aristocracy have been honoured with a burial place in Westminster Abbey.

The most remarkable monument in the Abbey can be found in St Michael’s Chapel, one of the many small chapels located around the perimeter. Interestingly, this does not belong to a monarch but rather Lady Elizabeth Nightingale (1704-31) who died in childbirth. The memorial was designed by the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-1762) and consists of life-size figurines of Lady Elizabeth’s husband trying to protect her body from a skeletal apparition of death. To create realistic statues of people is one thing, but to successfully carve a skeleton from stone is a serious feat. Roubiliac was responsible for other effigies in the Abbey, including one of the musician Handel located in Poet’s Corner.

 

Westminster Abbey is open to the public every day for services including Holy Communion, Morning Prayer and Evensong. For a fee, tourists are allowed in to follow a plotted tour around the holy building. Although this means it is difficult to take your time and study every hidden corner as a result of the crowd continually surging forth in one direction, the tour is laid out so that nothing is missed. The accompanying audio guide provides the history of the building’s involvement with the English royal family but also points out works of art, sculpture and architecture that will amaze many a visitor.

Unlike most churches throughout the country, not all the effigies remain the whitish-grey colour of stone. Evidence remains of coloured paint that was added to the statues to make them as lifelike as possible. Although some of these have faded over the years, many are still covered in the rich reds and blues.

Westminster Abbey was built before the fashion of painted ceilings and walls came in to being. In contrast to other London churches, for instance, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Abbey relies on ornate carvings for decoration. Having said that, during a cleaning in the 1930s, two wall paintings were uncovered that historians believe date back to the end of the 13th century. These have been identified as images of Christ with the apostle Thomas and Saint Christopher. Of all the artistic components of the Abbey, these early paintings are one of the few that feature religious content.

The most complex piece of art situated in the Abbey is the Cosmati Pavement in front of the High Altar. This also dates back to the 13th century and was commissioned by the abbot of the monastery, Richard de Ware (d1283). Pavements made of mosaics were all the rage in Italy, therefore Roman stonemasons were invited to England to lay something similar in the newly built Abbey. The pavement spans 24ft and is made up of a variety of material: onyx, porphyry, limestone and glass. The geometric pattern consists of an assortment of shapes and colours and, despite its age, still looks colourful today.

Although the architecture is phenomenal, the greatest attractions are the tombs and memorials of famous people – and not purely the Royals. Upwards of 3000 people are eternally remembered in the Abbey and more are likely to be included in years to come. The flamboyance of previous centuries has abated resulting in more indistinct plaques and stones for the more recent tributes. The most popular area for tourists is located in the South Transept and is most commonly known as Poet’s Corner.

Over 100 well-known authors, poets and playwrights are celebrated in Poet’s corner. Some, such as William Shakespeare (1564-1616), have ostentatious friezes, however, the majority have modest stone slabs, many of which are embedded into the floor. Literature lovers will be excited to locate some of their favourite authors, including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Geoffrey Chaucer (the first to be buried in this corner), Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, C. S. Lewis, Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth.

With floor and wall space running out, memorials have begun to feature on stained glass windows. These have been added fairly recently and take into consideration the writers who were shunned at the times of their deaths. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde (1854-1900) is one example. Almost 100 years after his death, Oscar Wilde, who had been denied a place in Westminster Abbey on account of his sexuality, was awarded a humble lozenge in the giant window above the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer. Space remains on the window for future authors to take their place amongst the other literary greats.

Westminster Abbey is a captivating example of British architecture and history and is certainly worth the visit. There is no other church or building as elaborately adorned as this structure on the edge of the Thames. As visitors follow the numbered audio points on their tour, they are encouraged to look up and marvel at the mesmerising ceilings that must have taken several years to produce.

 

As well as the main Abbey, your ticket will also allow you to explore the cloisters behind the dominant building. Here can be found the Pyx Chamber, Chapter House and the College Garden (check opening times). There is also a restaurant that is open seven days a week where you can get refreshments after walking around the entire Abbey.

It is without a doubt that Westminster Abbey is a worthy tourist attraction, nevertheless, the extortionate entry fee may cause something of a dispute. At £22 a head, it is questionable whether walking around what is effectively a giant tomb is worth it. One could joke that it is a once in a lifetime experience because, at that price, no one is likely to want to do it twice.

Having now visited Westminster and Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral – London’s two most famous religious buildings – the differences between the two are striking. Westminster Abbey is quite clearly intended for the aristocracy, evidenced by the class of people buried in its grounds. St Paul’s, on the other hand, is much more user-friendly. Of course, the architectural styles differ significantly on account of the periods in which they were built, but Westminster Abbey makes the general public feel as though they do not belong there (the strict rules and watchful security guards do not help matters), whereas St Paul’s is a much more welcoming and comfortable environment. In terms of their purposes as a house of God, St Paul’s definitely comes out on top.

It is irrefutable that Westminster Abbey is one of the most popular landmarks in London. Whether you attend a service or join the lengthy queue to tour the building, it will certainly be a place you will never forget. Despite the development of building materials and the constantly rising number of skyscrapers in the area, Westminster Abbey will remain a true advocate of the country’s history at the heart of the nation.

 

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The Art of the Natural World

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© The Trustees of The Natural History Museum, London

When visiting the Natural History Museum in London South Kensington, visitors already have some idea of what to expect. For starters, the recently erected skeleton of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling of Hintze Hall has been the talk of the public for some time. Whilst many tourists have flocked to view this giant, they are also expecting dinosaurs, fossils, extinct animals, creepy crawlies and volcanoes. People have not come with the hopes of looking at artworks.

To the casual observer, the exhibitions at the museum are exactly what they expected: bones, stuffed animals, more bones, ancient rocks, bones, fossils, dead things, and a wealth of information. On the other hand, looking past the scientific and factual details is a plethora of art waiting patiently to be acknowledged.

Before entering the museum, the original building screams out for attention, demonstrating Romanesque-style features, making it one of the finest Victorian buildings in Britain. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was an English architect who became greatly associated with the Victorian Gothic Revival Style. The Liverpudlian designer was only 36, thus still in the beginning stages of his career, when he inherited the task of designing the building for the Natural History Museum.

Influenced by German Cathedrals, Waterhouse developed the first building to be decorated both inside and out with intricate designs. Using honey and pale blue terracotta, beautiful decorations were modelled from Waterhouse’s drawings, representing fossils, birds, animals and fish – many of the items in the museum’s collection. After its completion in 1881, critics from The Times exclaimed, “The walls and ceiling are decorated as befits a Palace of Nature.”

Although it has been extended in recent years, the original building looks much the same as when it was first constructed. Many visitors wonder whether it was formerly a cathedral or monastery due to its phenomenal beauty, however, it was built especially for the museum.

The Natural History Museum would not have existed at all if it were not for the proficient naturalist and collector, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753). Although his initial claim to fame was introducing drinking chocolate to England, his collecting skills, which narrowly bordered on hoarding, provided scientists with the opportunity to learn the secrets of the natural world. By his death at the age of 92, Sloane had stockpiled over 80,000 objects and books from all over the world. The collection was crammed into his own home, however, his will stipulated that he wished to leave it to the nation. As a result, the British Museum in Bloomsbury was born.

The collection was rapidly added to over the following century and a decision was made to split the artefacts into sections. Thus, a new building was commissioned and by 1881, the natural history section was gradually relocated to its new home. As scientists learn more about the world, the collection continues to grow. It is estimated that the museum currently houses over 22 million items preserved in methylated spirits alone.

Looking at ancient dead things may seem like a long way from looking at art, however, there is a specific section of the museum that begs to differ. Within the blue section on the map supplied by the museum (actually, just ask someone to direct you; the map is not all that helpful) is an exhibition titled Images of Nature. Unlike the majority of the museum where reconstructed skeletons and educational models are in abundance, this long room works more like an art gallery with most items hung up on the bare walls.

Nowadays, a simple click of a button can eternally save evidence of nature, but, before the development of the camera, artists were relied upon to produce highly detailed illustrations. Although some of these artworks were produced to be enjoyed, scientists found them extremely valuable. Specimens were often collected by explorers, but after a while, colours would fade and plants would dry and shrivel up, making it impossible to demonstrate what it originally looked like. A watercolour study produced by an adept artist recorded an accurate image that visually explained the appearance of the foreign objects.

The museum has 500,000 natural history artworks within its collection, but only a handful of them are on display. Due to the fragility of many of the older drawings and paintings, the collection is rotated as curators periodically change the exhibit in order to limit any light damage.

Presently (July/August 2017), examples of illustrations can be seen by several different artists. Edward Wilson (1872-1912), for example, was a polar explorer who also enjoyed painting and drawing. In a glass cabinet alongside stuffed versions, his illustrations of the British hedgehog are on view. This is just one of the many iconic mammals he drew in the early 1900s. In cabinets nearby are more illustrations such as British birds by Phyllida Lumsden (c.1940), Nautilus by George Brettingham Sowerby (1788-1854) and Eggs of British birds by the Dutch artist Henrik Grönvold (1858-1940).

 

Slightly more graphic images are included in this gallery. Scientists are not only interested in what a specimen looks like on the outside, they are also intrigued by the inner workings of the plant or animal they are studying. One example is of the innards of a loggerhead turtle produced by Cesare Ferreri (1802-1859). Interestingly, developments have been made since 1833 when this image was produced. Originally it was labelled a spur-thigh tortoise, but today’s scientists, with their extensive knowledge, have identified it as the loggerhead.

Although cameras are available to most people, some scientists still prefer to capture their findings on paper. Bryan Kneale (1930-) provides a great example of modern illustration with a blue chalk drawing of a giant tortoise, which stands out amongst the other artworks surrounding it.

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Giant Tortoise, Bryan Kneale, 1986

The most interesting aspect of Images of Nature is the analysis of a 17th-century oil painting by the Flemish artist Roelandt Savery (1576-1639). The painting of a dodo may be recognisable by many and is the go to image when looking for representations of the extinct bird. Hung next to the initial painting is a modern version painted by the talented scientist, Dr Julian Pender Hume. Apart from the choice of artistic medium (oil/acrylic), there are a number of alterations to the plump, flightless bird.

When Savery painted the comical looking bird, dodos had mostly succumbed to extinction. The artist relied on limited fragments of a dodo skeleton to come up with this representation. Pender Hume, with his knowledge of avifaunal anatomy, explains in an accompanying video that, due to its inability to fly, the dodo would not have had such a bulky body; it would not have needed as much muscle as the Flemish artist gave it.

 

Images of Nature is one of the more quiet sections of the museum and may not appeal to younger children. However, there is an interactive game of sorts that allows the player to learn about the basic process of drawing a beetle specimen. The game goes through the stages an artist may look at, beginning with the initial shape of the insect and ending with a close look at adding appropriate colour. There is also the opportunity for visitors to draw their own picture based on any of the specimens seen around the museum. These can be posted in a box in the gallery for the chance of it being displayed for all to see.

 

Despite the fact that the purpose of the Natural History Museum is to store and display the collected specimens of past and present explorers and scientists, it does host an exhibition devoted to the art form photography. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the museum’s most popular exhibition that takes place once a year. Currently, the finalists and winners of the 2016 entries to the annual competition are being showcased in the East Pavillion.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the most highly regarded as well as the largest photography competition in the world, often attracting over 42,000 professional and amateur artists each year. This figure also includes an exceptional number of teenagers who submit their nature photographs to the junior section.

The competition is now in its 52nd year and has expanded significantly. When it first ran in 1965, only three categories were provided. Today there are more than five times the amount of categories including animal portraits, underwater photographs, plants and fungi, and black and white images.

Set in a dimly lit display room, the finalists and winners from each category are arranged on the walls on digital screens. This enables the museum to display all the photographs without needing to print them out on sizeable photo paper or worry about light damage. On each screen are details about the photographer and the image itself.

Unlike the rest of the museum, which is full of over excited children and their parents, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is a peaceful environment. Its silence and subdued lighting allow visitors to contemplate each photograph in their own time and appreciate the splendour and variety of nature.

As well as being displayed at the museum, the exhibition goes on tour around all six continents, therefore it is only viewable in London for a limited time. The current exhibition is open until 17th September and costs £10.50 (£6.50 for under 17s) to enter. Of course, the photographs can be found online, but there is something special about being able to see them all in one place.

For whatever reasons you decide to visit the Natural History Museum, be it the blue whale or a fascination with dinosaurs, be on the look out for examples of art. The fact that a science-oriented museum can display such artistry is proof that art can be found in the most unexpected of places. If you do not believe me, go to the museum yourself and witness the beauty and ornamentation of nature.

Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!

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St Paul’s Cathedral (Shutterstock/Ratikova)

St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks in London. In photographic and illustrative cityscapes of the capital, St Paul’s is invariably positioned in the centre. The cathedral is so well known, it independently represents England’s famous city.

The beautiful building is admired by thousands of visitors every day, attracting over 250,000 school children per year. For many, to have a photograph taken on the steps of the main entrance is sufficient, however, the interior is something not to be missed.

In order to fully appreciate the magnificence of the architecture and decoration, some knowledge of the cathedral’s history needs to be recognised. Many people know about the destruction of the building during the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the current structure is actually the fifth cathedral to have stood on this site.

In 604AD, King Ethelbert of Kent founded the first St Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the City of London. At this time, Christianity was still relatively new, therefore the wooden structure was one of the first religious settlements in England. Unfortunately, most likely due to the inadequate building material, it succumbed to fire in 675. Undeterred, the building was re-erected, only to be destroyed by Vikings a few centuries later.

The third version of the church was sensibly built in stone, however, St Paul’s appeared to be ill-fated, suffering another fire in 1087. With the Normans on the throne, those in power were determined to build the tallest church in the world, so construction began on a fourth building. The erection of this unique cathedral took many years followed by an additional 60 to make it even larger.

From 1300 to 1600, St Paul’s Cathedral stood without fatal incident, however, lack of care resulted in a gradual deterioration. Inigo Jones, a notable architect (whose other notable works include the Queen’s House, Greenwich) oversaw the restoration of the decrepit building, but it was doomed from the start with the launch of the English civil war. Plans to continue developing the cathedral were made after the reinstation of the monarchy, with Christopher Wren drawing out the blueprint, unfortunately, the hapless building was to face another demolition. In 1666, before Wren had the opportunity to start building, St Paul’s was completely destroyed by the infamous Great Fire of London.

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London’s burning: an oil painting of the Great Fire of London as seen from Newgate Museum of London.

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) was a remarkable man of many talents. Now respected for his architectural skills, he was also an accomplished astronomer and mathematician. In fact, he was a professor of astrology at Gresham College in London and Oxford University. His deep-rooted devotion to Christ, as a result of being a rector’s son, and his allegiance to the royal family during the civil war earned Wren the opportunity to work on the prestigious cathedral.

Wren had already completed several commissions in London, including the palaces at Kensington and Hampton Court, therefore Charles II knew he was a trustworthy architect to take charge of London’s greatest building. With a motto “Architecture aims at eternity,” Wren not only focused on the aesthetic appeal but took into consideration the longevity of the construction.

By 1675, Sir Christopher Wren was ready to begin building work. The floor plan was set out to resemble a Latin cross – an indicator of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and the building was to be topped with a dome, mainly to satisfy Wren’s desire.

Initially, Charles II and other influential individuals were set on having a spire atop the cathedral, but due to Wren’s persistence, the famous dome was assembled instead, thus unintentionally creating one of St Paul’s Cathedral’s famous interior marvels: the Whispering Gallery.

The Whispering Gallery, located 30 metres above the cathedral floor, got its name as a result of an architectural fluke affecting the acoustics in the dome. A whisper against the wall on one side of the gallery can purportedly be heard at the opposite wall. Unfortunately, the number of visitors in the gallery makes it impossible to fully test this theory. If the 257-stepped spiral staircase was not too much for you, it is possible to climb even higher. Above the Whispering Gallery at 52 metres and 85 metres from the ground are the Stone Gallery and the Golden Gallery. These both run around the outside of the dome, providing fantastic, panoramic views across London.

Although the unique acoustic trait may fail to occur, it is still worth the long climb up to the Whispering Gallery. From the balcony, you can peer down at the floor of the cathedral where the main church services are conducted. Depending on which side of the dome you stand, it is also possible to see a bird’s eye view of the nave, north transept and south transept.

The most awe-inspiring sight from the Whispering Gallery is not the view below but the closer view of the painted ceiling of the dome. This, of course, can be seen from the ground, however, the intricate details can be better appreciated from this higher vantage point. Surrounding the entire dome, and made to look three dimensional with the inclusion of painted pillars, are murals to represent the life of Saint Paul.

There is evidence to suggest that Christopher Wren wished the entire ceiling to be made up of mosaics, but, most likely due to costs, Sir James Thornhill (1675/5-1743) was commissioned to provide monochrome paintings instead. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of two famous ceilings that Thornhill was responsible for, the other being the ceiling of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.

Thornhill did not paint alone, instead, he supplied detailed pen-and-ink sketches for other painters to replicate. A total of eight scenes completes the experience of Saint Paul as written in the fifth book of the New Testament: the Book of Acts. A particularly memorable painting is based on an incident accounted in Acts 27 in which Paul has been shipwrecked on the island of Malta. The artist has depicted Saint Paul holding a poisonous snake, which ought to have killed him. His survival convinced the island inhabitants of the existence of God.

Although Wren did not get his wish for the entire dome to be decked in mosaics, the triangular spaces below Thornhill’s work caused by the structure of the dome’s arches, have been filled with the coloured mosaics. Designed by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) and George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), these portray four Old Testament prophets (Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah) and the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Again, these can be seen from the cathedral floor, or from a closer perspective in the Whispering Gallery.

It is only natural for a cathedral to be filled with biblical paintings and objects, however, St Paul’s is also famous for a number of burials. The crypt, which can be entered via stairs by the north transept, is home to many graves and statues that honour individuals of significant reputation. The two most popular are the tombs of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson earned his spot in St Paul’s crypt after being killed in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. Despite his demise, Nelson prevented an invasion of Britain by Napoleon and his army. Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, is also a national hero and deserves his granite casket under the cathedral. His army successfully defeated Napoleon at the famous Battle of Waterloo.

A third important thing to locate (no, not the cafe – although do visit that as well) is Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb. This is slightly more difficult to find in comparison to the elaborate memorials of the war heroes. In the south aisle of the Chapel of Faith, set in the Cathedral’s foundations, is a simple stone slab. Initially, this may appear an insult to the great architect and individual responsible for the construction of the long-lasting building, however, written in Latin above his tomb is the epitaph “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.” Wren does not need an effigy or ornate tombstone, he is buried in the undercroft of his very own creation.

Other notable memorials around the crypt are for artists and scientists who contributed greatly to society through their work. These include J. M. W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds, William Blake, Randolph Caldecott, Sir Alexander Fleming and Florence Nightingale. The latter is one of the very few women to be honoured in such a way at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Memorials in the form of statues can also be found inside the main body of the cathedral.   Carved by various sculptors from a variety of stone, an abundance of well-known names and likenesses can be spotted from all corners of the building. Lord Leighton, Lord Kitchener, Samuel Johnson and John Donne are a few examples. In the grounds outside, a gilded statue of Saint Paul and a stone Queen Anne, the reigning monarch at the completion of the Cathedral, are located.

St Paul’s Cathedral is also home to other artworks, excluding the memorial tombs and statues. The ceilings themselves are an exceptional feat, decorated with complicated mosaics. These were added from 1896 in order to appease Queen Victoria, who believed that cathedral looked dull and shabby.

Other works to look out for include Mother and Child by Henry Moore and The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt – the altarpiece in the Chapel of Saints Erkenwald and Ethelburga, as well as temporary exhibitions: the Commemorative Crosses by Gerry Judah – in memoriam of the First World War, Tides by Pablo Genovés and Martyrs by Bill Viola.

Of course, everything else in the cathedral is beautiful enough to be recognised as art. From altars and gates to the stone flooring, everything can be appreciated. The current organ is also a sight to cherish. Being the third largest in the United Kingdom, it has 7256 pipes and is decorated with elaborate carvings. Apparently, even the original organ was something special, being the first in Britain to have pedals. The composer, George Frederick Handel, got great pleasure from playing this instrument.

St Paul’s Cathedral is as magnificent as it was when completed in 1711, only 36 years after work began. It has been the location of many ceremonies, particularly the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981. It has also been a place of celebration for the jubilees of both of Britain’s longest reigning queens.

Thanks to Sir Christopher Wren’s durable architecture, St Paul’s Cathedral will hopefully remain standing for centuries to come. Thousands of services can be predicted to take place during the following years, but why wait to experience the amazing building? As long as you are willing to pay the fee, St Paul’s Cathedral is ready to welcome you and reveal its true beauty.

Such Ships as These

They mark our passage as a race of men. Earth will not see such ships as these again.
-John Masefield, Ships, 1912

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Cutty Sark

Museums, castles, churches and other historic buildings are often taken for granted in current society. Although ancient structures may be admired for their antiquated architecture, they are frequently merely regarded as part of the landscape. Some museums successfully convey the past to the current generation, but there are some bygone days that a modern exhibition cannot do justice, for instance, maritime history.

The United Kingdom is fortunate enough to have retained a number of ships and boats that had a significant role to play in British nautical history. From the Tudors up until the World Wars, ships and boats have been a great asset to our island nation, and life today would not be the same without their existence. Of the few that have survived to date, Cutty Sark, berthed in Greenwich, is the most famous and valuable of all.

The Cutty Sark‘s history is so eventful, it is astonishing that she remains fairly intact today. Opened to the public by Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, and now listed as a World Heritage Site, the ship is visited by a considerable number of tourists each day, teaching them about the numerous journeys she undertook in her heydey.

In parallel with today, England of the 1600s relied on countries throughout the world for a bulk of commodities and comestibles. Looking at labels on products goes to show the distance some of the items have travelled, and quite often this information receives as little as a fleeting thought. Before planes and high-speed vehicles, foreign products were not so easy to come by, but, in order to transport the desired merchandise, ships such as Cutty Sark were built.

In the late 1650s, Charles II’s future wife, Catherine of Braganza, made drinking tea fashionable amongst English nobility. This sparked a greater desire for the leaves resulting in the construction of clipper ships to sail to China to exchange silver for the precious cargo.

Cutty Sark was commissioned by a retired ship’s master, John Willis, in 1869, one of the first composite ships to exist, Until this date, most ships were built entirely of wood, however, Cutty Sark is an amalgamation of a wrought-iron framework and wooden planks. As a result, the boats could hold more cargo and go much faster than their predecessors.

The Cutty Sark experience (Adult £13.50, Child £7) provides visual and physical explanations about the ship’s famous voyages, the trials she faced and replicates the conditions sailors would have lived in for weeks on end. Although being able to view and touch enables education, there are some details that cannot be easily visualised, for example, why is Cutty Sark named thus?

It is common for all ships to receive a name or title on completion of construction, usually in honour of a place or person. In John Willis’ case, all his previous ships had been christened after rivers and villages near his hometown in the Scottish Borders, however, the name Cutty Sark broke away from this tradition. Obscurely, it comes from a Robert Burns poem, Tam O’Shanter (1791), which features a group of witches, one of whom is wearing a “cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn“, or, in plain English, a short dress.

As weird as it may be to name a ship after a piece of clothing, it explains the significance of the hair wielding figurehead who clung proudly to the prow. Dressed in a “cutty sark” with arm outstretched is Nannie, the young witch seen wearing a short dress in Tam O’Shanter. In the narrative poem, Tam, on horseback, is chased across Ayrshire by the wild witch. Although he reaches safety, his unfortunate horse loses her tail in Nannie’s grip. To coincide with the story, every time Cutty Sark was in port, a bundle of rope was placed in the figurehead’s hand to represent the horse hairs.

Nannie is now located in the Sammy Ofer Gallery underneath the 936-ton clipper ship. Originally, Cutty Sark sat on a concrete ground, but after restoration from 2006-12, she was raised over three metres in order to take the weight off her precious wooden hull and iron framework. This has resulted in an extensive area in the dock for exhibitions and refreshments at the Even Keel Café. Most significantly, the dock has become the permanent location of the world’s largest collection of merchant ship-figure heads. It is here that Nannie is located amongst several wooden friends.

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Nannie and friends

Excluding Nannie, the 50-odd figures came from the Long John Silver Collection owned by Sydney Cumbers (1875-1959) who purportedly earned himself the nicknames Long John and Captain Silver on account of his distinctive eye-patch. His passion for marine artefacts led him to collect over 100 figureheads and models. In 1953, he donated his precious hoard to the Cutty Sark. These figures come from a variety of ships and many have little known about them. As well as being fascinatingly prepossessing, they serve as a memorial to those who served in the merchant service.

The curators at Cutty Sark know the names of 49 figureheads in the collection, and the majority either share it with the name of the ship they featured on, or are from unknown whereabouts. Most are female, however, there are a few male figures representing people of certain prestige.

Amongst the well-known titles are Hiawatha (from a ship of the same name), Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale, King Solomon (the figurehead aboard the Ophir), Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, William Wilberforce, William Pitt the younger, Abraham Lincoln and Garibaldi (incidentally from Garibaldi). Presumably, these figureheads were named in honour of these celebrities, either during their prime – for instance, the prime ministers – or after their deaths.

 

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Florence Nightengale

 

Florence Nightingale was the figurehead of the Florence Nightingale, a merchant schooner believed to have sailed and traded in the Mediterranean. Details of who owned her and when she was built remain unknown, the ship no longer exists. However, it can be assumed that it rode the waves after the Crimean War (1856) because Florence Nightingale was not publically known beforehand.

Apart from the loss of an arm, Florence Nightingale is in excellent condition. Wearing an off-white blouse and skirt and a blue jacket, she is depicted as a prim, virtuous woman. Her hair is fashioned in a bun as she gazes off into the distance with her head slightly to the left, whilst her right and only remaining arm rests upon her hip. Although lacking a bonnet, the figure and hairstyle strongly resemble the photographs and paintings of the young nurse.

Ships and their figureheads were also named after fictional or mythological characters. Some names make more sense than others, but similarly to Cutty Sark, they may have been named after the owners’ favourite stories. Sir Lancelot is one example of this, from England’s greatest legend, and another is King Leonidas, a Spartan warrior from the BC500s. King Leonidas allegedly died on the Battlefield of Thermopylae, thus being a suitable character to adorn a ship named after the Greek location.

From mythology, Amphitrite was chosen to be the figurehead of a ship that remains unidentified. As the sea-goddess and wife of Poseidon, Amphitrite was a fitting character to embellish a merchant ship. It is feasibly possible that the owner named the figurehead, and perhaps the ship, after this fairly unknown mythological individual for luck and safe passage across the tempestuous seas.

The figureheads come in all sizes and weights, perhaps in relation to the style and dimensions of the ship. Two particularly large busts of women stand out from the collection under Cutty Sark. One of these has regrettably been undesignated and nothing is known about where she was found or who she belonged to. She has Snow White-like features – pale skin and black hair – and wears a light blue dress. Upon her head, she has two tiaras which suggest she is someone of high esteem, but who remains a mystery.

The other distinctively large female is also anonymous, however, there are some theories about where she came from. Dubbed the Spanish Woman, she is perhaps the oldest figure in the Long John Silver Collection. Sydney Cumbers’s notes reveal that she was found at the Deptford Dockyard in London and may have come off the British ship, Georgina, who sailed during the 19th century. Her dress – red with a ruffled collar and high waistline – is similar to the fashion from 1800-1812. In spite of that, it is unclear why Cumbers gave her the title of the Spanish Woman.

For whatever purpose you decide to visit Cutty Sark, whether it be for the figureheads or the ship itself, be prepared to be impressed and come away with a wealth of knowledge. It is suitable for both adults on their own and those with children, however, be wary of uneven floors and low hanging ceilings. During school holidays, special events for children may be taking place, so make sure you check online before you visit. Remember to bring your camera along for some unique photo opportunities.