The treasures of Westminster Cathedral – and some rather special views

Westminster Cathedral

Westminster Cathedral must be one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in London. Located just a stone’s throw from Victoria station, I’ve walked past it many times, admiring its beautiful exterior, but never ventured inside until today.

There were two particular reasons for my visit: namely, the Cathedral’s viewing deck and museum – both of which, it seems, remain relatively unknown; no-one to whom I’ve mentioned this visit had heard of them.

It being a gloriously sunny day, I headed first to the viewing deck, to which I was escorted (for security reasons) by the very charming manager of the Cathedral’s shop. You travel up there by lift, it being 64 metres above street level, but are encouraged to take the stairs down to the museum, which is based in the Gallery.

Refreshingly for a central London venue, there were only two other people up on the Deck, so I was able to wander about taking photos, such as the ones below, to my heart’s content. In the interests of honesty, I will say that this was an enjoyable, but not lengthy, experience – there are other buildings in London with far more wider-ranging views of the capital – but I enjoyed myself nonetheless.

However, it was when I descended the Cathedral’s spiral staircase to its ‘Treasures of the Cathedral’ exhibition, that my interest was well and truly piqued. This is where you can view a collection of rare ecclesiastical objects gifted to the Cathedral over the years – and also learn about the building’s history and architecture.

There are some stunning artefacts on display, but as you can’t take photos I will keep this section of my post brief. Highlights include a bejewelled coronet, a silver beaker dating back to 1620, a stunning cruet for wine & water, Italian silver goblets and a set of 17th century candlesticks. I was also interested to see the Order of Merit awarded to the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, shortly before his death in 1999. Hume is buried here, in the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine.

The Cathedral owes its existence to two other archbishops, Cardinals Manning and Vaughan. To understand how it came into being, we need to travel back to the end of the 19th century, when the Diocese of Westminster was the most populous and important diocese in England and Wales – and the need for a metropolitan Cathedral urgent. Cardinal Manning had been Archbishop of Westminster since 1865, but had always insisted that the creation of a Cathedral must be secondary to the provision of schools and orphanages for the deserted and neglected children of London.

However, through a number of astute land deals, Cardinal Manning had managed to acquire the site of Bulinga Fen. Then home to Middlesex County Prison of Tothills Fields, this particular location had a colourful history, having previously played host to a fairground, a pleasure garden and a bull-baiting ring. Construction would eventually begin under Manning’s energetic successor, Cardinal Vaughan.

Herbert Vaughan was a friend and a protégé of Cardinal Manning, albeit from a very different background. Born into an old, Catholic family – all five of his sisters were nuns and five of his seven brothers priests – Vaughan saw his mission as the salvation of souls. He described raising money for the planned Cathedral as “hateful work” – although he was enormously successful at it. Vaughan wasn’t simply a fundraiser, however – he played a key role in the architectural design of the building. It was Vaughan who insisted on its Byzantine style, wanting to avoid comparisons with the Gothic architecture of Westminster Abbey.

Amid great ceremony, on 29th June 1895, the Cathedral’s foundation stone, a massive piece of Cornish granite, was laid. The fabric of the building, consisting of 12.5 million bricks – all hand-made – was completed within the next seven years.

Further history would be made in May 1903, when the Cathedral became the auditorium for the first London performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. Sadly, Cardinal Vaughan was too ill to attend, and died the following month. Fittingly, his Requiem Mass was the first public liturgy to be celebrated here.

What I have described above is the tip of the iceberg as regards Westminster Cathedral’s history and provenance. I restricted my visit to the viewing deck and exhibition as I didn’t feel comfortable exploring the other parts of the Cathedral while a service was taking place; I will return on another day, at a different time, to admire its various Chapels and renowned mosaics.

Overall, this was a very interesting outing and one I would recommend to anyone with an interest in religion, history or architecture. Entrance to the viewing deck and exhibition isn’t cheap – £9 buys you a combined ticket – so I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to travel there, but if you are in the vicinity then you should definitely pay Westminster Cathedral a visit. You’ll receive a warm welcome and will, undoubtedly, be bowled over by the Cathedral’s beauty and tranquil presence.

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