Exploring Westminster Cathedral: A Visitor's Guide
Westminster Cathedral, seat of the Archbishop of Westminster, is the most important Roman Catholic cathedral in Britain. Only the Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool rivals its size. Built in 1903, the appealing red brick building features the Byzantine style on a basilican plan and is crowned by four domes. Its most noticeable feature, at least from the outside, is the 284 ft high campanile, St Edward's Tower.
At 150 ft including the aisles, Westminster Cathedral's Nave is the widest in England. It's also decorative and consists of variegated marbles on the lower parts of the walls and mosaics on the upper parts and the domes. On the main piers are Stations of the Cross carved by Eric Gill. The galleries over the aisles are borne on marble columns from the same quarries that supplied the stone for St Sophia in Istanbul. The capitals, all different, are of white Carrara marble. The great cross hanging from the arch at the east end of the Nave is 30 ft long, with painted figures of Christ and (on the back) the Mater Dolorosa.
South Aisle Chapels
In the south aisle is the Chapel of St Paul with its fine mosaic pavement based on a design by the Cosmati. The Chapel of St Andrew and the Saints of Scotland has bas-relief figures of Saints Andrew, Ninian, Columba, Margaret and Bride. Next comes the Chapel of St Patrick and the Saints of Ireland, aptly decorated with Irish marble. It also contains the badges of Irish regiments that fought in WWI, and beside the altar is a casket containing a roll of honor dedicated to the 50,000 Irishmen who fell in the war. The marble pavement is in the form of a Celtic cross. The adjoining Chapel of Saints Gregory and Augustine is most notable for its altar mosaics depicting the conversion of England to Christianity.
North Aisle Chapels
Along the north aisle is the Chapel of the Holy Souls with its beautiful mosaics of Old and New Testament scenes. Next to this is St George's Chapel, with a figure of the saint and the tomb of John Southwark, the "parish priest of Westminster" hung at Tyburn in 1654. The third chapel is the Chapel of St Joseph, with the tomb of Cardinal Hinsley (d 1943) and beautiful marble mosaics.
The North Transept
In the North Transept are a beautiful mosaic of Joan of Arc and the Chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury - also known as the Vaughan Chantry - and a fine statue of Cardinal Vaughan, who presided over the building of the cathedral. The little Chapel of the Sacred Heart and St Michael is decorated with Greek and Carrara marble. Next to it is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, with ornate mosaic decoration by Boris Anrep.
Steps lead down to the crypt (St Peter's Chapel), which contains a collection of treasured relics including a miter that belonged to St Thomas Becket, and fragments of the True Cross. Adjoining is the small Chapel of St Edmund with the tombs of bishops and cardinals, as well as a very fine white marble pulpit.
Near the entrance of Westminster Cathedral are two columns of red Norwegian granite symbolizing the Precious Blood of Christ to which the cathedral is dedicated. By the left-hand column is a bronze figure of St Peter, a copy of the famous statue in St Peter's, Rome.
At the southwest corner of Westminster Cathedral is the Baptistery, with an altar commemorating members of the Canadian Air Force who lost their lives in WWII. The font is a copy of that in San Vitale, Ravenna.
The High Altar and the Lady Chapel
Westminster Cathedral's High Altar, located in the Sanctuary, has a marble canopy borne on columns. To the right of the Sanctuary is the Lady Chapel, the first of the chapels to be completed and which is also decorated with very fine mosaics.
Amazing Views: St Edward's Tower
An elevator will take you to the Viewing Gallery atop St Edward's Tower where, from a height of 210 ft, you'll experience some of the best views to be had of London. Displays of artwork illustrating the cathedral's design and heritage are located in the Viewing Gallery and in the elevator lobby.
The Treasures of Westminster Cathedral
Containing some of Westminster Cathedral's most precious artifacts, this interesting exhibit has on display rare ecclesiastical objects, vestments, chalices and sacred relics. Of particular note is the model of the cathedral, widely considered one of the greatest architectural models in Britain.
In Tune: Organ Recitals and Festivals
Westminster Cathedral hosts a variety of regular organ recitals most Sundays at 4:45pm. Lasting 30 minutes, these excellent events are free. Also of note is the annual Westminster Cathedral Grand Organ Festival, a series of concerts taking place once a month from April to November featuring many of the UK and Europe's top organists.
Touring Westminster Cathedral
No formal tours are available, although a great deal of information regarding the cathedral is available from its website, including a useful virtual tour. Other resources such as guides and books are available from the Gift Shop.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Westminster Cathedral
The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your Westminster Cathedral experience:
- Events: Westminster Cathedral hosts numerous musical and religious events and festivals throughout the year, so be sure to check their website prior to your visit.
- Shopping: The Gift Shop stocks books and music related to the cathedral (most items are also available online).
- Services: The public is welcome to attend Mass and other regular services.
Getting to Westminster Cathedral
- By Underground (Tube): The nearest tube station is Victoria (Victoria, District and Circle lines).
- By Train: The nearest train station is Victoria. For details of links to London from across the country, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
- By Bus: The following Victoria Street buses stop in front of Westminster Cathedral: 11, 24, 148, 507 and 211.
- By Road: Westminster Cathedral's location in the heart of London makes driving somewhat challenging. It's also within the Congestion Charge zone, meaning charges apply. If you must drive, park at an outlying train station and take the train or underground.
- Parking: A limited number of on-street parking spaces are located near the cathedral, and a multi storey car park is located nearby in Rochester Row.
- The Tower - Mon-Fri, 9:30am-5pm; Sat-Sun, 9:30am-6pm
- Treasures of Westminster Cathedral - Mon-Fri, 9:30am-5pm; Sat-Sun, 9:30am-6pm
- Treasures of Westminster Cathedral - Adults, £5; Children, £2.50; Families (2 adults, up to 4 children), £11
- Cathedral Clergy House, 42 Francis St, London
The area around Westminster Cathedral comprises some of the world's most spectacular real estate. No more than a few minutes walk away are the Houses of Parliament on the River Thames, the seat of Britain's government, as well as other Whitehall Road landmarks including the Admiralty, the Horse Guards and the famous Cenotaph. Another highlight of a walking tour of Whitehall is the little cul-de-sac known as Downing Street (#10 is the official home of Britain's Prime Minister). The area's other great religious landmark is Westminster Abbey where most English sovereigns since William the Conqueror were crowned (it's also been the scene of many Royal Weddings).
Other nearby attractions include the medieval Banqueting House, completed in 1622 and including nine spectacular allegorical ceiling paintings by Rubens; and Winston Churchill's underground war rooms with their many mementos from WWII. For art lovers, one of London's largest art collections is located at Tate Britain, along with the Tate Modern located across the Thames (they're connected by high-speed ferries). For something a little less cerebral, take a stroll through lovely St James' Park to Buckingham Palace, or do a little shopping in iconic stores such as Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum and Masons.