When John Farrow wrote “Mass at Westminster”, he meant the cathedral, not the abbey. for at the other end of Victoria Street in London is a treat sought out by few. Sure, you can endure the hordes at Westminster Abbey, pay their outrageous fee for a photo permit, and then be herded through at breakneck speed. Been there. Done that. Didn’t enjoy it one bit. Or you can stroll westward toward Victoria Station and bear left just before the depot. For there you will find Westminster Cathedral, which is, I am certain, the church implied by Farrow’s poem.
Here are tall windows pouring in “their tinted beauty / To be lost again in shadow.” Reading Farrow’s poem, I recalled the cathedral’s “dark splendor” and heard again “the warming tinkles” announcing Transubstantiation and could nearly smell the “fleeting trace” of incensers (thuribles) swung by boys of fourteen. This was a 5:00 p.m. weekday service, yet there was a boy choir, the youngest of whom might have been no more than eight years old.
The architect for Westminster was John Francis Bentley (1839-1902) who chose with and for his client a building in the Byzantine style a la St Mark’s in Venice and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. He saw the former, by the way, but missed the latter on a preparatory study tour. Sadly, the budget could keep pace with the aspirations of neither client nor architect and so the building’s elaborate decorative scheme of marble veneers and mosaics had to be abandoned. It lavishes the walls to about twenty feet and adorns most of the chapels, leaving the multi-domed nave in red brick Victorian gloom.
Like all great spaces, however, Westminster succeeds through its multi-sensory approach to the worshiper. Looking at these images, what I recall was the sound and smell of the service, as well as its stirring imagery. So, when next you are in London, try the other end of Victoria Street and avoid the crowds.