Inside Westminster Abbey after its longest closure in 67 years

Teresa Machan
Capacity is limited to 150 people - getty

When the great west doors of Westminster Abbey banged shut in March, nobody, least of all the new Dean of the historic church, could’ve foreseen that they would remain so for almost four months – the longest period since 1953, when preparations were being made for the Queen’s coronation.

Now, 100 days later, one of London’s most iconic tourist attractions is open once more. Emerging from the eerily quiet back streets of Westminster on Wednesday evening it was encouraging to see a queue extending from the pointed arches of the Abbey’s Great North Door.

In a normal July or August around 1,000 people per hour walk through Westminster Abbey; in 2019 the attraction received 1.3 million visitors. Revised visitor opening hours are Saturday (10am – 3pm) and Wednesday (4.30pm – 7pm) with capacity capped at 150.

When I visited on Wednesday evening 120 people had pre-booked a ticket. A handful of walk-ins took the final tally to 135 – five per cent of the normal hourly throughput.

But staff couldn’t have been happier. “Just being open feels like we’re halfway there,” said Welcome Team supervisor Nur Ahmed, who has worked at the Abbey for 11 years. “It’s more than we could’ve hoped for a month ago.”

Now's the perfect time to see one of London's great sights without the crowds - getty

I picked up a Highlights Tour leaflet and followed the pink arrows to the North Transept. The interior has been Covid-adapted, with safe-distancing signage and a one-way routing. There is more hand sanitiser than holy water. Certain areas that require visitors to pass through narrow doors into confined spaces are temporarily closed. This includes the tomb of Elizabeth I. In the Nave – which can hold up to 950 people during a major ceremony – 20 or so chairs are laid out in pairs or singles.

The upkeep, maintenance and cleaning of a working 1,000-year-old church comes with its own complexities. The Abbey has a Surveyor of the Fabric, a post established in the late 17th century and first held by Sir Christopher Wren. That role is an architectural one. In 2017 it introduced a team of heritage cleaners who use special techniques to care for the Abbey. The precious marble floors do not like water, and abrasive cleaning materials can damage fragile surfaces. Quite a challenge in the so-called new normal, which demands enhanced cleaning of touch points.

The upkeep, maintenance and cleaning of a working 1,000-year-old church comes with its own complexities - getty

But then there’s the stuff we can all relate to. “The most important part of our kit on the past week has been the hoover,” said Head of Visitor Experience Scott Craddock, who on pre-opening day was running around the aisles with a Henry.

Many of last night’s visitors were taking advantage of the relative solitude, and the rare experience of having one of the most significant buildings to themselves. “School’s out, we’re all bored and so we’re seeing as much of London as we can,” said local Meg Paul, enjoying Henry VII’s Lady Chapel. “Tomorrow we’re seeing the Tower and the National Gallery.”

Three students from UCL were visiting for the first time. “We’re taking advantage of it being quiet. I live 10 minutes away and I can’t believe I haven’t been here before,” said Sylvia.

Many of last night’s visitors were taking advantage of the relative solitude - getty

A couple from Venezuela, also studying, have travelled down from Bristol to see the London’s key sites. Harry and his uncle, visiting the UK from Nigeria, were walking past and saw the queue and so decided to drop in. “I’m a regular,” he said. “I always come at Christmas.” I heard a handful of tourists too: Spanish, French and three Italians.

The Jubilee Galleries are currently closed, due to capacity restrictions, but Craddock said he is hoping to introduce a new Galleries-only ticket when they re-open. He also said the possibility of picnics in Dean’s Yard is under discussion: “It would make a visit more of an event for people willing to travel from outside of London.”

Craddock said the Abbey received a 95 per cent customer satisfaction rating following Saturday’s opening. “The Abbey is perfectly safe but it’s a mindset thing that attractions in London have got to collectively overcome. We need to get people back to the city.”

Look very closely and you might spot Henry. Not Henry VIII – he’s in St George’s Chapel, Windsor – but the hoover. He lives under the organ.