It is the strangest floor in all Christiandom.
Kings and plumbers are buried under it, bombs and ghost have erupted from it, knights and saints and freaks and tyrants have knelt upon it. It is, of course, Westminister Abbey, a medieval masterpiece that crosses the heart of London.
The intention of the architects and abbots who created the abbey over the past 900 years was to lift the eye heavenward with chapels and towers, ceilings and sanctuaries of indescribable beauty and uplifting design.
But do not overlook the floor, which is a jigsaw of english -- and world -- history in politics and art and literature, a confusion of graves and tributes to genius and death, religion and torment.
There is even amusement.
The manhole cover in the courtyard just inside the twin Gothic towers is pointed out by the verger who leads tours, a black-robed Britisher of gentle demeanor and one of the finest guides possibly, in London. His name is Ernest Browning and he overlooks nothing.
"Notice the name on the cover," he directs. The manhole cover carries the inscription of that fabled 19th-century sanctuary engineer and inventor, the late, great Thomas Crapper, the man credited with giving humankind the flush toilet.
A few paces away, in a hallway, we tread upon the first grave we notice in the stone floor. "Beneath this Stone," it says "Was Buried the Blind Scholar Ambrose Fisher, 1617."
The momentum picks up. For within the abbey are the remains of most every king and queen since the Norman Conquest of 1066. Absent without leave is Henry VIII, who is in Widsor Castle. But Queen Elizabeth I is there, and half-sister Mary Queen of Scots whom Elizabeth had beheaded. And St. Edward the Confessor and Richard II, as well as the little princes, two child heirs to the throne whom Richard has been accused of murdering.
Verger Browning notes one marking on the floor, to Oliver Cromwell, 1658-1666, England's only dictator. He was buried there, but no more. The body was taken from the abbey and the head was stuck on a pike where it remained in public view for 17 years. It finally was sold to Cromwell's brother, then surfaced about 20 years ago at Cambridge. However, another Cromwell skull came onto the scene four years ago. The dispute continues.
In the poet's corner you will find the remains of Geoffrey Chaucer who used to be clerk at the abbey back in the 16th century, and there is the grave of Robert Browning and Tenneyson and Byron and Kipling and Dickens and Hardy and even the composer George Frederick Handel. How he got there the verger did not explain.
Many of monuments in the abbey are merely tributes and do not contain the remains of the endeared. This can be confusing to the visitor and even a bit disgruntling. You stand in awe of a statue of Shakespeare, dwelling on the man and his works, only to discover that he isn't even there. H. L. Mencken found this annoying. "When you examine it (the abbey) you find that two-thirds of the graves haven't even got a dead man in them."
One corridor has the markings on the floor of a 14th-century grave where 26 monks are buried, victims in 1348 of the Black Death. Ghostly shapes are said to rise from the site at night and, said the verger, "if you come here on a chill December evening, you are willing to believe most anything."
Near the end of the tour, you will step over Tho Parr, one of the most remarkable nobodies ever to gain repose here. "Old Parr," as he was aptly called, had lived to the astonishing age of 152 years! A farmer from Shropshire, Old Par died in 1635, thanks probably to Charles I. Charles was so impressed by this aged man's longevity that he brought him to London to show him off. He died on the trip.
Near the exit is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I, "unknown by rank or name." Fresh poppies mark the memorial.
Take at least two hours to tour the abbey. Admission is free but a guide will cost about $5 a person and is an absolute must. Otherwise, you will miss the place where the cross-shaped church has its center. Anne of Cleve is buried behind the altar an oil bomb came through the roof right at the crossppoint in World War II but was quickly and miraculously extinguished.
One of the most impressive locales in the maze of architecture is the Charter House, where you pay a few cents and put on slippers to walk on the original 13th-century flooring where Parliament met. The crowning achievement of course, is the chapel of Henry VII, one of the most beautivul creations in history with vaulted tracery ceiling and the tombs of Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York.
There are some 3,000 people buried within the floors and walls of westminister Abbey, some in renaissance spendor, others in unmarked or severly understated tribute. A few, as Menchken said, do not even contain a dead person, but are gripping in the simplicity of their reminder.
The last statement you will read inscribed in the floor as you prepare to leave the abbey is one of these. All it says is this: "Remember Winston Churchill."