Westminster Cathedral is one of the great sights of London – in my book, anyway.
First of all, I’d better make sure no one confuses it with Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is where Kings, Queens, poets and the Establishment are buried; it’s a medieval building in the Gothic style and an Anglican church. The Cathedral, on the other hand, is a Victorian building in the neo-Byzantine style, and it’s a Roman Catholic church.
The foundation stone was laid in 1895. Architect JF Bentley didn’t choose the Gothic or classical styles that competed elsewhere in London for space – he looked to Byzantium and, in particular, to the great church of Hagia Sophia with its immense dome. Like the Byzantine churches, this one is mainly in brick – and brick that’s not hidden by stone cladding, but proudly proclaimed in the white-and-red decorative fabric of the great west front.
It’s a magnificent building, even though on a busy day, it sometimes reminds me of a large railway station – there’s the same booming acoustic, the same to-ing and fro-ing, the same muted hum. It’s huge, for a start – 342 feet long, 148 feet wide, with three great domes and using over 10 million bricks.
The other thing that puzzles me is why this cathedral looks so much like an Ottoman mosque. I know the Turks were much influenced by Hagia Sophia, so perhaps there’s a mutual influence there – but the west front, with its little domed turrets cascading down from the great dome, really does look incredibly like one of the great mosques of Istanbul – Sultanahmet perhaps, or Suleymaniye. The tower looks almost as much like a minaret as it does a Byzantine tower.
Whether it makes you think ‘Ottoman’ or ‘Byzantine’, there’s undeniably something exotic about this church. You won’t find anything quite like it in London (though the Natural History Museum comes close.)
The interior is splendidly decorated with marble and mosaic. The marble used in the decoration comes from Greece, from Languedoc (the red), from Verona (the yellow), and from Carrara in Italy (the capitals at the top of each column). The altar, on the other hand, is made out of Cornish granite – and apparently weighs ten tons.
Don’t miss the Stations of the Cross. They were carved by the great Eric Gill – a master stonemason and engraver. His work is clearly twentieth-century, and yet it has something of the intensity and concentration of the best medieval art about it. (His impassive, finely carved figures weren’t understood at the time when they were unveiled in 1915-16 – they were widely derided as flat and undevotional; it’s only later that Gill’s real artistic value was understood.)
Entrance to the cathedral is free, but there’s a charge to ascend the campanile – a marvellous red-and-white striped needle – for a marvellous view of London. And there is a lift – in case you were worried about your ability to manage all those steps.
The cathedral choir is also renowned, particularly for its performance of Spanish Renaissance music. The wonderful acoustic doesn’t hurt, either. Go to choral vespers, and it’s rumoured you won’t even have to sit through a sermon – just smells and bells and the most marvellous music.
Where: Victoria Street, SW1 (Victoria tube station)
When: cathedral 7am to 7pm, tower viewing gallery 930-1230 and 1-5pm. The cathedral closes at 5.30pm on public holidays.
How much: Westminster Cathedral is free to visit, but there is an admission charge for the tower.