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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 15:48 GMT
Six hundred years of history
College Hall, Westminster Abbey
Crests adorn the wall above the abbot's high table
This summer tourists will be able to visit a part of Westminster Abbey that has been closed for centuries.

BBC News Online's Matt Maclean looks at the colourful history surrounding the abbey's Medieval dining hall.

Set by a courtyard in the shadow of Westminster Abbey's twin west towers, the Medieval Abbot's Dining Hall has been in continuous use since its construction in the late fourteenth century.

Originally the state dining hall of the Abbot Litlyngton, who built it between 1369-76, the room known since the Reformation as College Hall still serves as a canteen for the Queen's Scholars and boys of the Westminster School.

And for the first time this summer members of the public will have access to this historic building, as part of the String of Pearls Golden Jubilee festival.

The history of Westminster Abbey is intertwined with that of the kings and queens of England, and College Hall is not without its royal connections.

West towers, Westminster Abbey
The great west towers loom over the abbey courtyard
Tradition has it that here Elizabeth Woodville and the boy prince, Richard of York, "sat alow on the rushes all desolate and dismaied" in 1483 as they sought sanctuary from the abbot.

More recently, Queen Elizabeth II attended a dinner in 1966 marking the 900th anniversary of the abbey's dedication by Edward the Confessor.

While original features such as the fine timbered roof remain, changing needs and fashions have led to modifications over the years.

Fire hazard

Though tapestries once adorned the chamber, these days Westminster boys eat their meals under the watchful eyes of former deans, whose portraits are displayed along the walls.

A minstrels' gallery was added in Jacobean times, although it could easily have been lost in a fire in 1968.

Original timber roof and louvre
The louvre used to vent smoke from the central hearth can still be seen
And until the middle of the nineteenth century, a central hearth warmed the hall, the smoke escaping through a louvre or lantern in the roof, which remains a distinctive feature.

The Very Reverend Dr Wesley Carr, the Dean of Westminster since 1997, explained: "Boys used to jump over the hearth for fun, but it had to go because of health and safety."

He also cast doubt on another legend surrounding the hall, that the benches and tables were carved from ship timbers washed ashore after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

'Private life'

He told BBC News Online: "The story has it the tables and benches came from the Armada. That would now seem to be superstition, although it is a nice story."

He added that the Jubilee festival would give visitors a chance to see another side to the life of the abbey.

Choirboys at the entrance to College Hall
"This hall is private most of the time but if people come here they will get a sense of another aspect of these buildings.

"For obvious reasons it is a working place and cannot be open all the time. But July and August seemed a good time to give people a sense of life here."

Dylan Hammond, festival director, told BBC News Online that more than 80 organisations along the River Thames between Windsor and Woolwich would be staging events for String of Pearls.

"In each case we are asking organisations to do something which is appropriate to their history and subject matter," he said.

"The abbey, for example, is going to be displaying film of the coronation and royal events which have taken place here over the years."

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