Westminster Abbey after-hours tour

By Lynn Cooper
This item appears on page 11 of the February 2019 issue.

Westminster Abbey — London. Photo by Lynn Cooper

Ask travelers to London what their most memorable experience was and many would answer, "The tour of Westminster Abbey." So when my husband, Carl, and I saw that the International Wine & Food Society, or IWFS (London, England; phone +44 [0] 20 7827 5732 or fax 7827 5733, www.iwfs.org) — of which my husband is a member of the Pasadena branch — had organized a tour around the 2018 IWFS Festival in London and it offered an opportunity to join a private, after-hours musical tour of the iconic abbey, we booked it immediately.

IWFS is a group whose members are primarily interested in wine. One is invited to join by a member, although each chapter can differ in its approach.

IWFS Festivals, or conventions, are held in various countries and are planned by the regional chapters. Each festival tour we have signed up for has included special dinners, wine tastings and excursions. The regional chapter members often join the tour participants for any lunch or dinner that has been planned, and they have the option to join the excursions.

The Westminster Abbey after-hours visit was a pre-tour and took place two days before the London International Festival tour, held May 28-June 2, on which there were 161 IWFS members from all over the world.

During the festival tour (priced from £2,495 per person), we visited the Hurlingham Club and Eltham Palace. Most of our lunches and dinners included English bubbly and wine tastings. We especially appreciated the wonderful English sparkling wines.

On the last night of the festival, June 1, the IWFS London chapter held a black-tie dinner, with wine pairings, at Goldsmiths Livery Hall. About 300 IWFS members attended, the additional guests being regional English chapter members, with a few members from as far away as Australia.

After the festival, Carl and I had two wonderful days on our own in London, then we joined about 25 IWFS travelers on a "Sussex & Hampton Wineries" post-tour, June 4-8, which cost £2,160 (about $2,750) per person.

Interior gate in Westminster Abbey — London. Photo by Lynn Cooper

On the second day of the post-tour, we visited Parham House at Storrington, one of the finest Elizabethan manor houses in the UK. Its foundation stone was laid in 1577. Parham's expansive English gardens were a visual delight.

Our lodging during the post-tour was the Ockenden Manor Hotel & Spa (Ockenden Lane, Cuckfield, West Sussex; www.hshotels.co.uk/ockenden-manor), an Elizabethan manor house in Cuckfield, one of the prettiest Tudor villages in England.

Prior to that, from May 26 to June 4, we stayed at the Corinthia Hotel London (Whitehall Place, London; www.corinthia.com/en/hotels/london).

The Corinthia was a short distance from Westminster Abbey, where our after-hours tour took place on May 26. For this special tour, there were only 35 in our group.

The evening began at 5:00 with a delicious English tea at the Cellarium Café & Terrace (Dean's Yard, Westminster Abbey; www.benugo.com/restaurants/cellarium-cafe-terrace), which is located a floor below the abbey. Our group filled the room, seated at long tables decorated with tiered trays of sandwiches, sweets and teacups.

At 7, a member of the Purcell Club (www.waoca.org.uk/purcell-club.html) was introduced to our group, and thus began our tour. Named after the renowned Baroque composer and chorister Henry Purcell, the club offers private tours of the abbey to organized groups, with musical stops along the way.

Before starting the guided tour, we heard a bit of history and introductions of the choristers. All Purcell Club members are choristers, though they come from a variety of professional backgrounds. They also volunteer their time and talent to raise money for the always-needed maintenance of Westminster Abbey.

After viewing the lines around the block at the abbey's entrance all day, it was glorious to have it all to ourselves. We were given a brief history of every historically significant spot, including the Coronation Chair in St George's Chapel, where the choristers sang, and King Henry VII's Chapel.

For two hours, the throngs and hectic streets of London disappeared as we immersed ourselves in the ancient beauty of the abbey. There were many moving musical interludes along the way. It was a most memorable visit that was diminished only by the fact that no photography was allowed.

Carl and Lynn Cooper exiting Westminster Abbey after the Purcell tour — London.

We were told that reservations for the after-hours tour are booked months in advance, and after experiencing this wonderful visit, we understand why.

Organized-group tours can be scheduled by visiting Westminster Abbey's website (www.waoca.org.uk) and clicking the "Purcell Club" link on the navigation bar. On the Purcell Club page, click the link at the end of the last paragraph under "Booking a Tour." Tours occur 10 times a year by "kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster."

Pasadena, CA

In response to emails from ITN, Bob Humphrys of Purcell Club Bookings (purcellclubbookings@gmail.com) explained, regarding the after-hours Westminster Abbey tours, "for reasons of comfort and safety,… the total size of any group tour is around 80 to 85, consisting of two to three parties of 25 to 50 people each… usually arts organisations but not exclusively. We only deal with parties of the size described and not with individuals or small groups."

He added, "Our waiting list currently stands at three years. A group making a booking now can expect to be offered a tour in 2022, but occasional cancellations can change the picture.… Smaller groups are more likely to be accommodated sooner, as they allow more room for flexibility."

The current price of a tour is £35 (near $46) per person.… Money raised from the tours is shared between the abbey and charities nominated by the membership. Our running costs are minimal, so we are able to give substantial donations."