Inside Westminster Abbey

One billion people watched last year's royal wedding - but what's it really like to work at the Abbey?


Benjamin, 13, Senior Chorister


Westminster Abbey is a very special place. I grew up in Florence, where my dad was a vicar. When I first came to Westminster, it was one of my first times in London and I thought, “The Abbey is just another building.” I didn’t know what it was. Was I impressed at first? Not really – I was hungry and all I wanted was to go home and have something to eat.

But I soon realised that the Abbey has witnessed so many centuries of history. Kings and Queens have been crowned and buried here. There are memorials to famous poets and artists everywhere. It’s a very grand place indeed.

I go to Westminster Abbey Choir School. It’s a really nice place to be. It’s homely, and it’s not huge. It’s a small community where everyone knows everyone else. Singing in the Abbey is a great experience. We perform at eight services a week and do four concerts a year – they keep us very busy.

The atmosphere makes you feel very special. You’re the centre of focus. You’re helping the congregation, so that everyone can be with God.

I sang at the royal wedding last year. I was pretty nervous about being on television, but I was also excited. At first, it felt strange, as if I had loads of eyes on me. But once we started to sing, I forgot all about that. I find it’s very helpful when you’re exposed like that to think that it’s only you and the choirmaster. Then you tend not to get too nervous or make mistakes.
Another big thing we did was sing a papal mass at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. That was amazing. Some people spend ages queuing up to see the Sistine Chapel for just five minutes. My dad has done that before. But this time he was able to sit there for a whole hour listening to the music and looking at the Chapel.
Sometimes surroundings like that can help you, and sometimes they can be a disadvantage, because you’re too busy looking around to focus on the music. But we all concentrated hard on the singing, and it went really well.

I’ve enjoyed filming the documentary. My family are very proud of me. My 22-year-old sister is very funny about it. She’s always saying, “That’s my brother – he’s on TV.”
When I came to this school, I preferred modern music like the Beatles and Queen. But I’ve grown to accept classical music. It’s part of my daily life.
At first I got a bit homesick, but the other boys helped me get over it. Then a couple of years ago, it just clicked. It was as if I suddenly realised, “Wow, I’m not singing in some modern building. I’m singing in Westminster Abbey, of all places.”

The Reverend Michael Macey, Minor Canon and Precentor

Westminster Abbey is a living, worshipping church – we have more than 1,500 services a year here. But it’s also at the heart of the nation. It’s the church of the Queen.

We are well aware of its significance and of our responsibilities, but if you think about it too much, you wouldn’t be able to do your job properly; you would be paralysed.

My office has to put together all the services at on the Abbey, from holy communion to evensong and matins. I love it. Is it my dream job? Yes.

The royal wedding last year was, of course, a particular highlight. It took six months to prepare the service. As soon as it was announced, we started work on it, talking to the royal household, Buckingham Palace, government departments, the security services and the media.

It was my responsibility to talk to the couple. I didn’t have to discuss the significance of marriage with them – the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London did that. But I had to talk them through the order of service and the logistics of the day, everything from what would happen when they arrived and where they would be seated, to how they should hold hands. I wanted them to feel completely at home.

In the event, I was delighted with how it went. I have rewatched it three times since – once as a viewer and twice to see if there was anything I could learn from it. Did I cartwheel down the aisle in celebration after the service? No, that wasn’t me.

One thing above all made the day work so well – the fact the royal couple obviously wanted to be married. Their steer to us was that they wanted to be like any other couple getting married. They had that look of love in the eyes and that says it all.

Ptolemy dean, Surveyor of the Fabric

My job entails pretty much everything to do with the building. That includes repairs of the fabric itself and new constructions. I wasn’t here for the royal wedding; I’ve only been in the post since March – I’m a complete new boy. But I’m well aware of the traditions I’m walking into.

The day I was given the post, I was led by the Dean by the hand into my stall. That walk towards the high altar was quite extraordinary. You can sense the history all round you. I was terribly moved by that.

I’m only the 19th Surveyor of the Fabric since Sir Christopher Wren. Since then, Hawksmoor, Scott, Lethaby and Pearson have all done it, so I find myself in the footsteps of some enormous shoes.

When the nation examines itself, it looks at Westminster Abbey. It’s a reassuring centre of spirituality, probably even more than Canterbury Cathedral, because it contains all these great monuments. It’s a grand location for state occasions – we saw Princess Diana’s coffin taken into the Abbey; and the world was focused on it during the Queen’s coronation in 1953.
I think it’s a very good thing that the Abbey has allowed itself to be filmed. It’s a place of great national interest. Primarily, it is a place of worship, but it is also a repository of astonishing history. If you find yourself in Edward the Confessor’s chapel, you think, “Crikey, this is a seriously major part of the history of this country.” You’re confronted by that feeling wherever you go in the Abbey.

The job is a constant contrast between emotional and important matters like the Coronation Chair and more mundane things. For instance, my first day was spent traipsing around the Abbey asking people whether the dustbin situation was right or wrong. But I was pleased that was my first task. If you can do the bins, you can do anything. 


Westminster Abbey is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2.