Wednesday, 8 October 2014

British Houses of Parliament - an inside view

On a fine, sunny, morning my son and I caught the train into central London and strolled across Westminster Bridge.  I had no idea where we were heading and it  wasn't until we were at the foot of Big Ben that my  son told me he had booked us an inside tour of the British Houses of Parliament.  What a fantastic surprise, the buildings had always held a mystique for me  and I had never thought it possible to set foot inside those hallowed halls.  Needless to say I was pretty excited as we joined a queue with other excited people to pass through full airport style security before entering the buildings.
British Parliament/ Westminster Palace (free photo from the web)

Parliament is housed in Westminster Palace, the first palace on this site having been built in the 11th century, and was, up until the 16th century when large parts were destroyed by fire, the main residence of the ruling monarch. It has been the centre of parliament since the 13th century and is why you will often hear the British parliament referred to as "Westminster".

The tours, which last 90 minutes and are available only when parliament is in recess, take visitors through 11 key rooms. As luck would have it I was in London at the right time.  It required forward planning on the part of my thoughtful son, however, as tickets sell out pretty quickly. Photography is not permitted in all but a couple of rooms so I have used here some copyright free photographs courtesy British Houses of Parliament. Click on the photos to see them in more detail.

Here is a brief outline of some of the rooms we saw on the tour:

Westminster Hall
WESTMINSTER HALL All tours gather in this vast, impressive, cathedral-like hall, dating from 1097. While waiting for our tour to start we had plenty of time to admire the wooden beamed, vaulted ceiling, ponder the history of the hall, spot the carved angels on the rafters and marvel at the many famous people who have passed through.  The hall was used as a court for the trials of Charles I, Sir Thomas More, Cardinal John Fisher and Guy Fawkes, among others.  Royals lie in state here, the last one being Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and, in an unusual honour afforded to a non royal, so did Winston Churchill. Here also foreign leaders have been given the rare privilege of speaking.  In the 20th and 21st centuries speakers have included Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Pope Benedict XIII and Barack Obama.

The Royal Robing Room (HP photo)
THE ROYAL ROBING ROOM  is used by the monarch to prepare for the state opening of parliament.  The walls of the room are painted with large frescoes depicting the legend of King Arthur with themes of chivalry and valour.  These frescoes were lovingly chosen by Prince Albert for his beloved Queen Victoria.

The Royal Gallery (HP photo)

THE ROYAL GALLERY After donning ceremonial robes the monarch then processes through this exquisite royal gallery to the House of Lords.  Once again large paintings
adorn the walls, including a depiction of Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar and many portraits of royalty.

THE PEERS LOBBY has a clubby, library type atmosphere and is where the peers meet for informal discussions and to send and receive messages.

CENTRAL LOBBY 18 metres across and 23 metres to the centre of the vaulted ceiling, is the dividing point between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  If doors to both were open it would be possible to see both the royal throne in the Lords and the speakers chair in the Commons.  This is the place often seen on television where reporters interview politicians.

MEMBERS LOBBY Similar to the Peers Lobby but plainer it contains busts and statues of former Prime Ministers and message boards for the MPs.  It was fun to search the message board for familiar names.

The House of Lords (HP photo)
LORDS CHAMBER  is lavishly decorated in scarlet leather and gold with beautiful
stained glass windows above.  At the end of the chamber is an ornate gold canopy above a spectacular gold throne.  The monarch is seated on this throne for the state opening of parliament. Tiny loud speakers are inserted in the back of the scarlet benches to assist, according to our guide, the elderly, hard of hearing Lords who may be quietly dozing through a debate.

House of Commons (HP photo)
HOUSE OF COMMONS CHAMBER is austere and in stark contrast to the lavish decoration in the House of Lords.  This is a relatively new part of the building, the previous House of Commons having been destroyed in the blitz of the second world war. The green benches will be familiar to most from television reports.  Monarchs are not permitted to enter the House of Commons,  the last monarch to do so was Charles 1 and he came to a sticky end!  Lines are painted on either side of the house over which neither the government representatives nor the opposition may go.  A story goes that these lines are more than two sword lengths apart to ensure that debates did not become bloody, but there is no substance to this story since swords have never been permitted in parliament.

Those are some, but not all, of the rooms we visited.  I loved this tour, revelled in the fascinating history of the place, enjoyed the commentary and anecdotes from our articulate guide and was more than a little overwhelmed by the historical events that had taken place within those walls. 

I would highly recommend this as one of the best things to do in London...just make sure you plan well ahead.  Special thanks to my are a gem!