IN AN unremarkable corner of Westminster Abbey is a wooden door
marked "Private". Behind it are 78 wooden steps spiralling upwards
in a narrow staircase. And at the top of those is one of the
Abbey's hidden treasures: what John Betjeman once called "the
greatest view in Europe".
More than 20 metres above the floor of the Abbey, and largely
invisible to the tourists taking pictures below, is a vaulted
gallery that runs the entire length of the building. This is the
Abbey's eastern triforium, a centuries-old secret expanse that is
to be opened to visitors for the first time as part of a gallery
and exhibition space.
The Dean, Dr John Hall, invited us, a group of reporters, to
join him in a final tour around the triforium before building work
begins in earnest to transform the dusty space into the Queen's
Diamond Jubilee Galleries (News, 6 March).
The gallery is surprisingly spacious, and is well lit by large
windows that offer views across to the Houses of Parliament. Dr
Hall explained that the triforium, which is larger than that in
most cathedrals, was designed to be used as chapels for the monks,
but was never actually furnished. Purbeck marble columns and stone
gargoyles carved into the ceilings indicate that the space, while
hidden from view below, was always intended to be used. Huge oaken
beams criss-cross the galleries, put in by Sir Christopher Wren to
support the roof.
Squat brown pipes running alongside our feet are evidence of
more-recent architectural interventions, and provide heating for
the whole building. When the triforium is re-opened as a museum and
gallery, the pipes will be sunk beneath a new floor.
Rather than tackling the daunting spiral staircase, visitors
will be whisked up by a lift in a newly built tower outside the
Abbey's walls, and will then step across a walkway into the
It is impossible to spend much time in the space without
shuffling towards the edge of the gallery to take in the views
across the Abbey, which are impressive. At one end, you can see
down the entire length of the building, where tiny tourists scurry
across the floors. It was this sight, previously restricted to
Abbey staff or Richard Dimbleby commentating on the 1953 coronation
service for the BBC, that Betjeman called the finest in Europe.
As Dr Hall led us through the triforium, men and women were
busily working around us - packaging old masonry and artwork, long
stored in the galleries; vacuuming the dusty space in preparation
for the builders. Under a spotlight, a restorer worked patiently at
piecing together a chipped and fragmented plaster cast of the
funeral effigy of Margaret Beaufort, grandmother of Henry VIII, who
is buried elsewhere in the Abbey.
It was impossible to miss the many names carved into the old
stone walls. A mildly embarrassed Dr Hall explained that these were
probably the handiwork of pupils from Westminster School, a
prestigious private school located in the Abbey precincts, who were
prone to sneak into forbidden places and leave their names
The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries, the curator, Susan
Jenkins, says, will hugely increase the number of ancient treasures
that the Abbey is able to show to the public. The Galleries are
expected to cost £19 million, of which £11 million has already been
raised, and are to open in 2018.