10 Reasons Londoners Should Visit Parliament
It’s one of the top recommendations for tourists arriving in London, but I’ve hardly met anyone who’s taken their democratic right to have a snoop around this historic treasure. So here’s a list of reasons Londoners should visit Parliament, or to use it’s official name; the New Palace of Westminster.
The Royal Gallery, photo courtesy of UK Parliament
England can boast the oldest democracy in the world, with parliaments (in their current form) generally accepted to have started in 1264 and the building where the magic – so to speak – happens has parts dating from the 11th century!
If only those walls could talk?
Thankfully, with the help of a Parliament guide, they sort of do…
1. Westminster Hall
The oldest part of Parliament, Westminster Hall is the largest unsupported roof in Britain and the second largest in the world. Some parts date from 1087 and were built under William II but the majority is from 1399.
These are the walls that have witnessed over 900 years of history including dramatic trials like that of Guy Fawkes (1606) and Charles I (1649). It’s also where monarchs are laid in state, a huge honour that’s only been given to ‘civilians’ twice; for Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and William Gladstone.
(As ever) it’s worth looking up to spot wooden angels on the beam. Each one has a unique face!
The other great thing about Westminster Hall is that this is the free bit! Anyone can come into Westminster Hall and they often have art exhibitions (read about Artangel’s 2016 Ethics of Dust display here.) You just have to queue and go through some airport-style security.
2. St Mary Undercroft
I mentioned The Great Hall as a location for paying your respects, but this is mostly for very public events. In contrast, St Mary Undercroft is the private chapel for Parliament and isn’t open to the public. Very recently it was here that the body of PC Keith Palmer lay in rest after the Westminster Terrorist Attack of 22 March 2017.
3. The Royal Robing Room
In this huge building complex there after a few rooms with very specific, limited use and this is one of them.
The Royal Robing Room, photo courtesy of UK Parliament
The Royal Robing Room is officially only used once a year, when The Queen dons the Imperial State Crown and ceremonial robes before she makes her way to the House of Lords for the State Opening of Parliament.
Fun fact – It also has a concealed door (hidden in the panelling) which leads to a royal bathroom, used only by her majesty.
4. New Dawn
The latest permanent art installation celebrates the fight for Women’s Suffrage, finally achieved for all men and women over 21 in 1928.
Created by Mary Branson, New Dawn is made of hand blown glass roundels which are based on the stacks of ‘scrolls’ found in the Original Act Room.
Rolled Acts of Parliament in storage, photo courtesy of UK Parliament
The overall appearance is like a rising sun, hence ‘New Dawn’, but the piece is also high-tech and constantly shifting.
The lighting is linked to the tidal rise and fall of the River Thames, with the number of circles lit dependent on the height of the river, giving a nice literal reference to the ‘tide of change’ that swept the nation in 1918 and 1928.
Before this artwork there was another – more sneaky – reminder of the Suffragette movement; a plaque placed on a broom cupboard by Tony Benn MP, commemorated the night in 1911 that Emily Davison snuck in so she could claim her address as The Houses of Parliament on census night.
Image from The Telegraph
5. The Commons
Commons Chamber, photo courtesy of UK Parliament
Decorated in green leather (a custom dating back 300 years), the Commons Chamber will be familiar from PMQs, but I’ll admit I was taken aback at how much smaller it appears in real life! This room was rebuilt after The Blitz by Giles Gilbert Scott following the previous layout of Sir Charles Barry (more on him later).
The aggressive layout with the two sides facing each other, is a feature from the original location of the House of Commons; St Stephens Chapel (1135-1834). The distance between the two sets of benches is said to be two swords length, to reduce the risk of sword fights.
6. The Lords
Intended as the fanciest room in all the Palace of Westminster, The Lord’s Chamber is the grandest because it contains the three elements of Parliament; Sovereign, Commons and Lords.
The Lords Chamber, photo courtesy of UK Parliament
This time they’ve gone for red decor and this colour combination continues outside the building; you may have noticed that Lambeth Bridge – closer to the House of Lords – is painted red, whereas Westminster Bridge is green.
Like the Commons Chamber, the Lords sit opposite each other. But look a bit closer and you’ll spot some lovely little red pouffes in the centre of the room. This is the woolstack, a sturdy cushion stuffed with wool where the Lord Speaker sits. Why wool? It’s thought that the tradition started in the 14th Century when wool was Britain’s most important export. Still today, it contains wool from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Like anywhere with a 900 year long back story, you’d expect a few weird quirks to creep in over time.
Verbatim notes are recorded from both the House of Commons and Lords. They’re still taken by hand and you need to be able to write 200 words a minute. Officially they’re known as ‘Hansard’ named after Thomas Curson Hansard who was the first official printer to Parliament in early 19th century.
I feel like there’s a joke in here somewhere about working your ‘Hand’s ‘ard’…
8. Victoria Tower
Inside the palace of Westminster its easy to lose your bearings, but during the tour we were told about exterior features too.
For instance, when the Victoria Tower was finished (1860) it was the tallest and largest stone tower in the world. It was restored between 1990 and 1994 which required over 68 miles of scaffolding!
And let’s not forget that most iconic feature of the House of Parliament…
9. Big Ben
Yes, we all know the name of the actual tower is the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben is the name for the bell. But here’s what else I discovered;
- Despite what you about MPs in the press, they do sometimes have to work through the night. Above the clock face of the Elizabeth Tower is the Ayrton Light, lit whenever parliament is in session after dark and installed in 1885, so that Queen Victoria could tell when they were sitting.
- The clock’s copper minute hand is 14ft long and the first ones that were installed were so heavy that the mechanism couldn’t lift it and it swung back to the half past mark!
- Incredibly accurate, if the clock is even a second late or early, they add an old one penny coin to raise the pendulum’s centre of gravity and either speed it up or slow it down.
10. Pugin’s Pride and Joy
What you see of this iconic building is nearly all the rebuild after the fire in 1834. Sir Charles Barry almost always gets the main credit for this design, but really it’s Augustus Pugin that was in charge of all the decoration, both on the outside, and in;
The Central Lobby, photo courtesy of UK Parliament
Such was the scale of the work undertaken by Pugin, he died aged 40, literally having worked himself to death. The last part he designed was the Elizabeth Tower;
“I never worked so hard in my life [as] for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole machinery of the clock.” Taken from Rosemary Hill’s biography of Pugin published in 2007
In fact Barry neglected to give much credit to Pugin and it wasn’t until Barry died that Pugin’s son published a pamphlet stating that his father was the ‘true’ architect, not Barry.
So there you have it, even the building itself was tainted with political point-scoring, back-stabbing and in-fighting…
There are several options for visiting parliament. As I mentioned before you can visit Westminster Hall for free and – as is your right as a citizen – you can watch parliamentary debates too.
As part of my Blue Badge Training I went on a guided tour which lasts about two hours and is run by trained guides. It costs around £25 but there’s also audio guides available for around £20. Find out more here.
You can also view a 360 virtual tour of the Houses of Parliament here.