"The Abbey is a source of fascinating stories about women: Elisabeth I, Bloody Mary, and the writer Aphra Behn."



I have been living in London for ten years. Two days after graduating from a tourism degree in Gdańsk I moved to Britain planning to work for some four months, earn some money and come back to Poland after the summer. It so happened that I am still here.

My first job was as a waitress in a vegetarian bar in Soho. The money was pretty good, so I thought it was perhaps worth staying here a bit longer. I guess almost everybody who comes here is at first stunned by what sort of opportunities are opening up to you. I started a new life.

I worked in that post for a year, during which I met so many new people and travelled across the world. I then landed an assistant job for a new theatre play but three weeks later it turned out the money granted to our bosses vanished in the thin air, and nobody ever paid us for our work.

Shortly after that, I joined the Westminster Abbey as one of the first three women ever hired to work on visitors' experience. Traditionally this role would have been manned by former policemen or soldiers, but we all came with some first-hand experience in dealing with customers. I am now the only manager that is both female and foreign, and I am hoping that I am paving the way for others.

I was surprised by the warm welcome we received. Obviously, the Brits are at the core of the Abbey, but we are quite an international bunch. We often proudly say that we can communicate with visitors in more than 16 languages.

Before joining the team, I would often walk past the Abbey, but I had never even been inside - and now, out of a sudden, here I am in my red uniform, helping people to understand the history of one of the most important buildings in this nation's history. It felt special and still does today.

Over the years I have got to know the Abbey quite well, and yet I discover something new almost every day. I have my favourite place, too: a small St Faith's chapel, characteristic for the Middle Ages, where probably nothing has changed since the Abbey was built in the 13th century. Even if I were blindfolded, I would know where I am because of the smell there. I like to go and quietly sit there from time to time.

Something I did not expect was that the Abbey could also be an excellent source of fascinating stories about women: whether Elisabeth I who was buried here, Bloody Mary, or Aphra Behn, one of the first women who earned their livings as writers in the mid-17th century.

(In the "A Room of One's Own" essay Virginia Woolf described Behn in the following way: "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds. It is she—shady and amorous as she was.—who makes it not quite fantastic for me to say to you tonight: Earn five hundred a year by your wits.")

By the way, in recent years I witnessed a significant change in the Anglican Church after they decided to allow women to be ordained priests. During the ceremony of one of the first woman-bishops, a male protester turned up with some placards. In line with the values of the Abbey, we allowed him in to voice his protest, but when I was next to him, minding his behaviour, I knew deep at heart that he was on the losing side in the debate about women's right and gender equality.

I think of myself as a tough woman with a lot of self-confidence, but I must admit that on the day of Brexit referendum I struggled a lot. I took it very personally, thinking of it as a sign that all Leave voters do not approve of me and do not want me in this country. I could not come to terms with that for quite a long time, but fortunately, our friends at the Abbey kept assuring us that we are indeed welcome and valued here.

This uncertainty does come back now and then though. I was recently at a party, and when I mentioned, I was from Poland the person I was chatting with immediately assumed I was a cleaner. He apologised profusely for that later on, but I guess it illustrates a broader problem.

I always hope that my work in the Abbey brings about a change in how Poles are perceived by people in Britain. It seems to me that it is the high time to reject the old stereotypes.


Words: Jakub Krupa

Picture: Jadwiga Brontē


© 2012 Ministry of Foreign Affairs