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Abbey announces plans to transform visitor welcome

Thursday, 12th September 2019

Abbey announces plans to transform visitor welcome

Westminster Abbey has been granted planning consent by Westminster City Council for a project to improve the welcome it offers to the 1.3 million visitors who come to the Abbey from around the world each year.

A new building will be constructed adjoining the North side of the Abbey to accommodate welcome, security and ticketing facilities. These services are currently located in the North Transept where they are physically and visually intrusive, making it difficult to appreciate immediately the beauty of the Gothic nave on arrival. Moving them to the new building will allow visitors to follow in the footsteps of kings, queens and royal brides by entering the Abbey by the Great West Door.

The single-storey building will also house chairs and other equipment currently stored within the Abbey, freeing these spaces for enjoyment by visitors and worshippers. In total, around 340m2 - or 11% of the Abbey's floorplan - will be freed up, and a number of historic monuments which are currently obscured will once again be visible.

The building will be constructed on the site of the 13th century Great Sacristy – built in the 1250s by Henry III during his reconstruction of Edward the Confessor's Abbey. An integral part of Henry's church, the Sacristy was where the monks kept vestments, altar linens, and other sacred items used in the mass. Following the dissolution of the monastery in 1540, the building was remodelled and repurposed as domestic accommodation. By 1740, the Sacristy house had fallen into a poor state of repair and, along with a range of large houses which by now stood alongside it on the Abbey's North front, it was pulled down. It is the only part of Henry’s church to have been lost.

The foundations of the original building were discovered during landscaping works in 1869. A dig by Channel 4's Time Team in 2009 established that the footings were indeed from Henry's building. The medieval walls were found and proved to belong to the missing Sacristy.

The new building has been designed by Ptolemy Dean, the Abbey’s Surveyor of the Fabric (consultant architect), who also designed the award-winning access tower to The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries, which opened in the Abbey’s triforium last June. The single-storey design complements the Gothic architecture of the Abbey, incorporating plain walling, castellation and a series of buttresses. The use of materials including English stone, oak and lead will allow the building to sit discreetly in front of the much larger elevation of the Abbey which towers above it.

The project will also see enhancements made to the landscaping at the Great West Door, including the provision of permanent step-free entry to improve access to the Abbey for all its visitors.

The cost of the project is estimated to be £11.2m, to be met through a combination of external fundraising and Abbey funds. Archaeological investigations and enabling works will begin in the autumn, and the new building is expected to be completed in late 2022.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, said today:

The Dean and Chapter decided over ten years ago to plan for a time when our many visitors coming from around the world to see the Abbey and its many treasures would be able to enter through the Great West Door, the door through which distinguished visitors and worshippers enter the Abbey. We are delighted to have received planning permission for the wonderful re-creation of the historic Great Sacristy with its new purpose. The consequent new arrangements will have a truly transformational effect on the experience visitors and worshippers have of the Abbey.

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It’s a privilege to live and work here – the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.

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Martin - The Dean’s Verger

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