Westminster Abbey (or, to give it its correct name, the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster), founded in the 10th century, has played host over the years to 38 coronations, seen the burial within its walls of 17 monarchs, and, since 1919, acted as the venue of choice for royal weddings, most recently that of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in April 2011.
But it all started off in much simpler fashion when a group of Benedictine monks, sworn to a life of austerity, were brought to Westminster in about 960 AD by St Dunstan, then Bishop of London. No trace of the building in which they originally lived and worshipped remains because, a century later, King Edward the Confessor set about building them a new stone Abbey on the site they had settled, a marshy area called Thorney Island. It was consecrated on 28 December 1065, only a week before the Confessor's death. The dead king - and future saint - was laid to rest in the Abbey he had built, and his remains lie there to this day.
However, it is mainly to King Henry III, who ascended the throne in 1216, and whose devotion to the memory of his royal ancestor inspired him to rebuild the Confessor's Church in such magnificent style, that we owe the Gothic splendour of today's Westminster Abbey.
The Great West Door is familiar to people the world over from TV footage of state occasions. Ordinarily, however, it remains closed, and you'll enter instead by the equally imposing North Door.
This means that, if you want to retrace the footsteps of monarchs and royal brides, you should turn right upon entering (having first bought your ticket and collected your free floor plan and audio guide from the information desk) and make your way back down the Nave to the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. This is the final resting place of an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War and buried in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920. Three years later, in 1923, when Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI), she spontaneously placed her bouquet on the Warrior's Grave as she was leaving the Abbey, and it has been traditional for royal brides to do the same ever since.
To the right of the Great West Door, in a glass-fronted display case, you can see the Coronation Chair, in which almost every monarch has been crowned since Edward II in 1308.
As you walk along the Nave's central aisle towards the Quire Screen, don't forget to glance up at the magnificent vaulted ceiling. Although the Nave of Westminster Abbey may be relatively narrow, its ceiling is the highest in England at nearly 102 feet.
Beyond the Nave and the Quire - the latter being the place in which the monks originally worshipped and where the Abbey's choir now sings the daily services - lies the Sanctuary, the heart of the Abbey, where the High Altar stands.
In front of the Altar is one of Westminster Abbey's treasures, the Cosmati Pavement, a marble pavement dating from 1268, named after the Italian family who specialised in work of this kind. It is one of the most remarkable examples of medieval craftsmanship in Britain and is extremely precious, with intricate geometric designs made up of small pieces of coloured semi-precious stones. Conservation work has recently restored it to its full glory, meaning that, for the first time in many decades, the Pavement can be left permanently uncovered.
To the east of the Sanctuary, behind a stone screen, lies Westminster Abbey's spiritual centre: the Shrine of Edward the Confessor. This is accessible to the public only on one of the verger-led guided tours (see the website for more details), but, by standing on tiptoe, you can just about manage to see into it from the outside.
At the easternmost tip of Westminster Abbey is the Lady Chapel, constructed by by Henry VII between 1503 and 1519 to replace the 13th-century chapel. It is a masterpiece of late medieval Gothic architecture, notable in particular for its fan-vaulted roof, constructed entirely of stone. It has been called 'one of the most perfect buildings ever erected in England' and 'the wonder of the world'.
All around the chapel are Tudor emblems such as the rose and portcullis, and nearly one hundred statues of saints still remain in niches around the walls.
In the north aisle of the chapel is the Tomb of Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary I. At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking that only Elizabeth is buried here, for there is no sign of her much-maligned sibling. But Mary is actually buried underneath Elizabeth, completely out of sight, something she would surely not have liked!
Westminster Abbey would eventually become the final resting place of 17 monarchs, and the centrepiece of the Abbey's Museum - located in the 11th-century vaulted undercroft beneath the former monks' dormitory - is its collection of royal and other funeral effigies. From Henry III onwards, most Kings and Queens of England were buried within its precincts, although Henry VIII and Charles I are buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle, as are most monarchs and royals after George II.
In fact, Westminster Abbey is actually a giant mausoleum, which soon becomes clear as you start to explore. Beneath your feet at every step are gravestones and memorial tablets, whilst the walls are lined, and the chapels cluttered, with funerary statuary and monuments. As you wander around, you can almost smell the desperate need of some of the people entombed here to achieve immortality for themselves and their loved ones. And, in a way, they have achieved it, for, whilst the human remains are gone, the stones remain.
One of the best-known parts of Westminster Abbey is Poets' Corner, located in the South Transept. It was not originally designated as the burial place of writers, playwrights and poets; the first poet to be buried here, Geoffrey Chaucer, was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey because he had been Clerk of Works to the Palace of Westminster, not because he had written The Canterbury Tales. Subsequently, however, other poets and also prose writers were buried or memorialised around Chaucer, including William Blake, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens (upon whose tomb a wreath is laid each year on the anniversary of his death), John Dryden, George Eliot, TS Eliot, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, the Brontë sisters, Rudyard Kipling, John Milton, Alexander Pope, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jane Austen, Alfred Tennyson, Dylan Thomas and William Wordsworth. There is also a monument to Shakespeare.
Not all those buried in the South Transept are poets or writers. The grave and monument of the famous composer George Frideric Handel can also be seen here, as well as the grave of Sir Laurence Olivier.
Elsewhere in the Abbey, the North Transept became known as Statesmen's Aisle following the burial of Prime Minister William Pitt, Earl of Chatham in 1778. Here also can be found the graves of Charles James Fox, William Gladstone and Lord Palmerston, and memorials to Benjamin Disraeli and Sir Robert Peel, amongst others.
The Quire Screen has a monument to Sir Isaac Newton, in an area often referred to as Scientists' Corner, and Charles Darwin is buried in the Nave. Meanwhile, Sir Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten have memorial stones in the North Quire Aisle, also known as Musicians' Aisle. The list just goes on and on...
When you've done the rounds of the Abbey's interior, step out into the Cloisters for a breath of fresh air and a leisurely stroll. In pre-Reformation days, this would have been one of the busiest parts of the monastery, used by the monks for meditation and exercise.
In the East Cloister is the octagonal Chapter House, dating from the 1250s. The monks met here every day for prayers and to read a chapter from the rule of St Benedict and discuss the day's work, and it was here that the King's Great Council first assembled in 1257, effectively beginning the English Parliament.
The room is lavishly adorned with sculpture and wall paintings of the Apocalypse, with the Last Judgement painted on the east wall. It also contains one of the finest medieval tile pavements in England and, in its vestibule, the oldest door in Britain, dating back to the 1050s.
Finally, also located off the East Cloister, is the Pyx Chamber, a low vaulted room best known as the home of the wooden boxes, called pyxes, wherein a sample of the coinage of the realm was kept to await the 'Trial of the Pyx', the procedure by which newly minted coins were shown to conform to required standards.
Westminster Abbey, SW1
Check the website for up-to-date opening times as these can vary from day to day. However, in general, they are are as follows:
Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri: 09.30-16.30 (last admission 15.30)
Wed: 09.30-19.00 (last admission 18.00)
Sat: 09.30-14.30 (last admission 13.30)
Sun: Worship only. No Tourist Visiting.
Adults £16.00 (free with a London Pass)
Concessions £13.00 (Over-18 students and 60+)
Schoolchildren (11-18 years) £6.00
Child under 11 free accompanied by an adult
Family £32.00 (2 adults and 1 child)/£38.00 (2 adults and 2 children)/+£6 per extra child
The first (chargeable) child with two adults - FREE
The entry charge includes a free audio guide.
Nearest Tube: St James's Park (District & Circle Lines); Westminster (Jubilee, District & Circle Lines)