Behind the Scenes at Westminster Abbey
In March and April of this year, I was privileged to be a part of a team of Paint The Town Green decorators restoring the internal gates of Westminster Abbey.
Of course, working in such a historically significant building brings both special moments and unique challenges.
Here’s a behind the scenes glimpse of what it’s like to work inside the Abbey.
All That Glitters
Our role in the Abbey project was to prepare and paint the gates dark grey, getting them ready for gilding by the talented team from architectural conservationists company Humphries & Jones. It was fascinating to see the gilding process up close, with extremely thin layers of real gold being carefully applied to the more ornate parts of each gate for a spectacular finish.
Paint The Town Green Supervisor Nat and I even had the unique experience of having our eyelids gilded; for the rest of the afternoon it looked as though we had made an extra special effort for work that day!
The Cartwheeling Verger
One of the most special parts of the Abbey experience was meeting the helpful staff and volunteers, especially one of the vergers: Ben. He achieved some fame during the Royal wedding of Prince William and Kate, when he was captured on camera cartwheeling through the Abbey after the service!
Ben was a real character, offering us sweets each day, and even giving us a private tour of the Abbey’s highlights after our project was finished. It was amazing to hear his expert commentary on parts of the Abbey not typically open to visitors, such as the organ loft and the ancient Tomb of St Edward the Confessor.
Simply being in the Abbey each day was a special experience. Some of the most spine-tingling moments included hearing the thundering of the organ as tunings and practice took place, and seeing the choirboys in their iconic robes coming in for rehearsals.
The Abbey Services
While it is of course a hugely popular tourist attraction, the Abbey is primarily a place of worship - as it has been since the 10th Century. This meant that we had to work around frequent daily prayers and communion services, as well as making sure we were ‘as quiet as church mice’ in order to blend into the background and minimise disruption.
Tangling with Tourists
Westminster Abbey welcomes over a million visitors each year. For us, this meant adapting our work practices to allow for the flow of thousands of people walking through the Abbey each day.
Many of the visitors were very interested in what we were doing, particularly as it’s quite rare to see conservation work in progress and up close. It became very common to hear parents tell their curious children: ‘They’re getting everything ready for the big day!’
We also had to make sure that the visitors who had paid to learn about the Abbey were still able to get the full experience. This meant working alongside the Abbey’s team of staff and volunteers to change visitor route directions when necessary to allow our work, as well as make sure we didn’t cover up any of the most popular attractions when we were protecting our working areas.
This was particularly challenging when we were protecting the Abbey’s floors; over 3000 people are buried at the Abbey, including Sir Isaac Newton, Ann of Cleves, the Unknown Soldier, and Charles Darwin. With Darwin being a particular photo hotspot for tourists, we needed to make sure we didn’t cover up the eminent naturalist while we worked around him!
A Changing of the Gates
For both the visitors and Abbey staff, it was initially a little hard to accept the changing of the colour of the gates that they had become accustomed to, from blue to dark grey.
However, when rubbing down the layers of paint on the gates, at least 18 colour schemes were identified - and pre-War, all of these schemes were grey. By restoring the gates to grey, we have kept them true to the Abbey’s history.
As well as this, it’s traditional for the Abbey to undergo some redecoration prior to a major event like a Royal wedding - or a coronation! Although one visitor was quite emotional that we were ‘getting rid of the Queen’s colours’, carrying out sympathetic restoration and keeping in line with tradition is an important aspect of the Abbey’s past and future.
By the end of the project, anyone who had been sceptical about the gates’ colour changes was truly impressed by the dramatic contrast of the dark grey paint with the fresh, dazzling gilding.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Working at the Abbey was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that the whole team enjoyed. Even Paint The Town Green Director Phil spent a day getting stuck in! He said:
‘It was a real honour to work in such a historic and significant place, and we are proud to have been able to help ensure that the Abbey is in top condition for this important event.’
The King Charles Connection
King Charles is renowned for his efforts to promote sustainability and environmental issues, which of course fits with Paint The Town Green's own Ethical Manifesto. In 2021, the then Prince of Wales launched the 'Terra Carta', which sets out guiding principles and actions for companies and organisations to follow in order to put 'Nature, People and Planet' at the forefront of their work. We are proud to be named supporters of the Terra Carta, and therefore even prouder to have played some small part in restoring a building with such a Kingly connection.