Good for kids? ★★★ Value for money? free Worth a visit? ★★★
Westminster Abbey is ★14 in our Ultimate London Bucket List, ★9 in the Top 10 London landmarks, ★5 in the Top 10 things to do for free and ★2 in the Top 10 most historic sites
The Evensong service also appears in our London one day itinerary for free and two day itinerary
Craig's review... You know you're getting old when you'd rather go to a choral evensong at Westminster Abbey than have a night down the pub, but ah well -- I am at that stage in life now. I am officially an adult.
Let me just start by saying that I'm not religious in the slightest. I make Richard Dawkins look like the pope. But I don't think it really matters when it comes to enjoying a service at a church because there certainly isn't any pressure to convert. The priests don't look deep into your soul before they let you in, they don't force you to sing the songs and you don't have to shout amen or take Holy Communion or anything like that. As long as you sit quietly and respect what's going on then I reckon even the devil himself could get in.
You need to meet at the Great West Door (near the shop) and I recommend you start queuing at 4 PM. The tourists all get kicked out between 4 and 4.30 PM and a gargantuan gathering quickly grows at the gate waiting to be let in for the mass. (Note: even if you paid to enter the Abbey beforehand you'll still be turfed out and have to queue up all over again.) I'm guessing that there's around three to four hundred people attending the evensong today, so you can imagine what the scrum was like when they finally opened the gate -- people were surging in like they were cramming onto a tube train. It was quite an unsightly scrum for a church service. Women, children, old ladies... they all got pushed and pulled and elbowed out the way. And it was the old ladies who were doing most of the pushing!
If you manage to survive the journey inside then you'll get ushered straight past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and up the left-hand side of the nave past Isaac Newton's memorial. Then you'll have to stand there for five minutes and wait for them to open the pews. It's during this lull in the proceedings that you can have a look at the vast ceiling and the memorials on the walls. You can't actually go anywhere, though. You're all herded behind a rope into a very small area, so don't go thinking that this is a cheap way of doing some sightseeing because it's not. If you want to see the whole of the Abbey then you'll have to stump up the money for a proper tour.
The service takes place in front of the main altar with the seats arranged in the north and south transepts. I've managed to bag a seat right near the front and have got a great view of the famous Cosmati pavement where the kings and queens are crowned. Today's choir today is from Queen's College Oxford and they're all sitting in the quire to my right. Unfortunately I haven't been so lucky with my neighbours, who've been blathering on about their game of Candy Crush for the last five minutes. One of them has even kicked off her shoes and socks so she can cool her feet on the stone floor. The rest of the congregation is made up of pious old ladies trying to pray, two hundred tourists straining to see, young kids who've been dragged along by their parents, and an old bloke who is hacking up the contents of his snuff box. So it's a mixed bunch.
Whilst all of this is going on the organ is playing ethereal tunes in the background but then suddenly swells up into a heart thumping rumble as the parade of priests troop in. In they come with their crosses held high, swinging their smoky incense jugs around.
The service is underway now with gospels, prayers and an occasional sing-song with the choir. You get issued with a little hymn sheet beforehand but there's no pressure to sing. Half of the hymns are performed by the choir alone and that's when the singing truly shines -- the choir sounds absolutely fantastic. The noise they make is being echoed all around the Abbey and if my local church sounded half as good as this then I would have converted ages ago. It's a lot easier to believe in God when you're sitting in Westminster Abbey with the Queen's College choir sounding out.
Even when the singing stops and the priest is droning on you can still enjoy the surroundings. You don't get the full effect when the Abbey's packed with people in the morning, but when you're sitting here listening to the choir and breathing in that thick, smoky smell of incense, looking up at the stained-glass windows and the ceiling soaring six-storeys above your head, it really hits home what this place is all about.
The service lasted for about an hour and was over by 6 PM. Then the priests parade out again and you're very quickly ushered out of the door. There's no time for sightseeing. You end up on the front steps where the priest is wishing everyone peace on earth and all of that kind of thing, etc, and as you walk away the bells get drowned out by the beeping buses and bikes roaring round to Parliament Square. Then you can smell the hot dog burger van that's parked ten metres from the gate.
It's definitely worth doing, without a doubt, even if you're not religious -- there's a lot to enjoy, and be moved by, if you let it.
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Craig recommends… If you enjoy Westminster Abbey then you might like to visit Brompton Oratory (catch the train from Westminster to South Kensington), St. Paul’s Cathedral (catch the train from Westminster to St Pauls) and Westminster Cathedral (walk it in 12 mins or catch the tube from Westminster to Victoria). If you enjoy church services then I recommend the Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral, a Sunday service at the Tower of London and a choral service at Hampton Court Palace as well.
★★★Westminster Abbey review – “The British Valley of the Kings has the tombs of some of our most famous monarchs: Edward the Confessor, Henry V, Elizabeth I, and the single greatest room in London – the Lady Chapel of Henry VII” – from Craig’s review of Westminster Abbey in London, home to the Coronation Chair, Poets’ Corner, and the Royal burial tombs of our most famous kings and queens
Your comments and questions
MalcomP I certainly enjoy your reviews. Very interesting and you have a wonderful sense of humor. Great site.
Alan To be honest your penultimate paragraph sums up the entire 20-21st century religious experience within six lines. I will do it in just one - mercenary
Terry Evans Cost of ticket for evensong?
Craig Hi Terry. It's free, it's just one of their regular services
Molly80 Hello, Typically how long are the Evensong services? Thanks!
Craig It's always an hour long. 5 PM to 6 PM during the week (except Wednesdays) and 3 PM to 4 PM at the weekend
P&G We went to an Evensong service last week after reading about it on this site, and it was wonderful! What a lovely cathedral, We will definitely be going back for a full tour, but it was the singing that really impressed us. It soars and sounds absolutely wonderful, and so holy. What an experience.
Frank Hello! Is photography permitted?
Craig Hi Frank, No, they dont let you take any pictures during services - westminster-abbey.org/visit-us/photography-in-the-abbey
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