Posts Tagged With: Houses of Parliament

Visiting the Houses of Parliament

I have previously written about visiting the Houses of Parliament and some of its history. Back in 2014 we visited both the House of Commons and the House of Lords to sit in the public gallery to watch some of the debates. Unfortunately you do not get to stop and look at much while you get escorted to the public galleries, so this time around I had booked a guided tour of parliament.

The best way is to book this through their website well ahead of time to ensure you get the date and time that suit your plans. Be aware that photography is not allowed in most of the building, so the majority of the time you will just have to enjoy the view and buy a guide book afterwards.

The tour takes you to all the places you cannot go to if you visit the House of Commons and/or House of Lords public gallery for the debates.

The first place you enter (after going through airport style security) is Westminster Hall, where your guided tour will start. This is the oldest part of the buildings, having been built in 1097 by the son of William the Conqueror and was the largest building in the UK, and probably Europe, at that time.

Westminister Hall, built in 1097

After going through the hall you end up standing on the stairs, which you can see just at the back of the photo. The tour will turn left up some further steps from here, but first you get a great view of a fairly new installation, called the “New Dawn”.

New Dawn by artist Mary Branson

This piece of art was commissioned in 2015 and revealed in 2016 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the presentation to Parliament of the first mass petition calling for women’s suffrage. The design is made up of glass scrolls and metal crosses on a metal framework resembling a portcullis, the symbol of Parliament.

It sits right above the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall, an area associated with suffrage campaining and protests – this raised portcullis symbolises the opening of the democratic process to woman.  The votes for women movement was often represented as a “tide of change”, which was sweeping the nation. To reflect this, New Dawn’s lighting is linked to the tidal River Thames. It builds from low tide, where only one disc is lit, to high tide, where the whole sculpture is illuminated.

Entrance to St Stephen’s Hall

The last place where photography is allowed is in St Stephen’s Hall. This stands on the site of the royal Chapel of St Stephen’s where the House of Commons sat until it was destroyed by the fire of 1834. During 1945 to 1950 the hall was used by the House of Commons on the first day of each session during the rebuilding of the bombed Commons Chamber. The hall was renovated in 1960 to repair the war damage.

The hall is lined with statues of famous parliamentarians, including Robert Walpole, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox. Statues of early Kings and Queens stand either side of the doorways.

St Stephen’s Hall

Ceiling of St Stephen’s Hall

One of the many statues and paintings in St Stephen’s Hall

The tour then moves to parts of parliament where photography is not allowed. One of the places you will see on the tour is the Norman Porch, so called because it was originally intended to house statues of the Norman kings. The stairs leading up to the porch are known as the Royal Staircase and are the start of the processional route taken by the Queen when she enters the Houses of Parliament (the entrance is located at the base of Victoria Tower). This is the only route the Sovereign is allowed to take when he or she comes to the House of Lords.

The Queen’s Robing Room is also on the itinerary, so called because this is where the Queen gets ready for the opening of parliament; she puts on the Imperial State Crown and her ceremonial robes before making her way down to the House of Lords. This room also served as the House of Lords while they gave up their chamber to the Commons when their chamber was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War and between 1941 and 1944 the robing room also hosted the state openings of new sessions.

Other places of interest that are visited as part of the guided tour are the Royal Gallery, Prince’s Chamber, Lords Chamber, Moses Room, the Central Lobby (where some news reporters sometimes broadcast from), the Member’s Lobby, the Aye Lobby and the Commons Chamber.

Be warned that there are not many opportunities to sit down during this 90 minute tour! Most people think that they get to sit down on the famous red (for the Lords) or green (for the Commons) benches in the houses, but that is not the case.

Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and answered all questions really well and her passion for this building with its living history really shone through, so much so that she ran over by about 10 minutes (which was great, as she really took her time to explain everything and answer all questions).

You can take a self guided audio tour, which is cheaper, but I truly believe that the guided tour is more than worth the money and you get to have your questions answered!

Categories: London | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wordless Wednesday

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Categories: Europe Trip 2014, Wordless Wednesday | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Palace of Westminster – where Politics reigns

Westminster Palace aka the Houses of Parliament

Westminster Palace aka the Houses of Parliament

The first residence to have been built on the site of today’s Parliament dates back from circa 1016, when King Canute set up his royal residence here.

The Palace of Westminster, or Houses of Parliament, as we know it today, is the “New Palace”, built between 1840 and 1870, and only the Great Hall (or Westminster Hall) is all that remains from the medieval Old Palace.

The Old Palace was built by William II between 1097 and 1099 and was the largest hall in England at the time. The palace was extended and changed by a number of royal residents until 1512, when a fire gutted the privy chambers and Henry VIII moved to a nearby building in Whitehall and never moved back, which meant that Parliament could move in. Parliament had convened regularly at Westminster since the reign of Henry III, but it was only in 1512 when a permanent house was needed, as Henry VIII kept law makers busy with his divorces and changes to the line of succession.

Westminster has played host to many high-profile treason trials. Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot were tried and executed in 1606. Charles I, while still king, was tried and condemned as a “tyrant, traitor and murderer” in 1649 – even though no court had any legal authority over him. The courts of law finally moved out of Westminster in the 1800s.

In 1834 the old structure was destroyed by a fire, giving the opportunity to build something fit for purpose.  As ever in these situations, a competition was put out by the authorities and the winner was Sir Charles Barry, who worked alongside Augustus Pugin, creating the Perpendicular Gothic building we see today. It contains 1,100 rooms around two courtyards, covers eight acres with a 266 meter river frontage. Sadly, neither Barry nor Pugin lived to see the New Palace finished.

A close up of the neo-gothic building

A close up of the neo-gothic building

Aside from fires and Gunpowder Plots, Westminster Palace has been the target of many other acts of violence. Prime Minister Spencer Percival was assassinated here on 11th May 1812, the only British Prime Minister to have ever been assassinated. A bomb severely damaged the Common Chamber in 1885 and seriously injured three. During the Blitz in WWII, the Palace was hit 14 times. In 1974 a 9kg bomb, planted by the IRA, exploded and in 1979 a car bomb exploded killing Conservative politician Airey Neave.

Neo-Gothic through and through

Neo-Gothic through and through

Some interesting facts:

  • The only members of parliament allowed to eat or drink in the Chamber is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who can have an alcoholic drink while delivering the budget.
  • The building contains over 100 staircases, 3 miles of corridors, has its own gymnasium, shooting range and hair salon.
  • The lifts have hooks designed to hang your sword and some floor markings are designed to be 2 sword lengths apart.
  • The Lord’s Chamber is the most lavishly decorated room, however, the Lord Speaker sits on a large sack of wool, representing Britain’s wool trade.
  • No King or Queen has entered the House of Commons since 1642, when Charles I stormed in with his soldiers and tried to arrest five members of Parliament who were there.
  • In 1987 the Houses of Parliament were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • The 1313 Statute forbids the wearing of armour by members of Parliament when attending the House.
  • It is still against the law to die in the Houses of Parliament, as the law has not been repealed. Anybody dying in Parliament is technically entitled to a state funeral, and therefore this law was created to prevent this from happening.
The view once you get though security

The view once you get though security

The Houses of Parliament are open to the public whenever Parliament is in session (generally October to June, Monday to Thursday) and are free to enter. If you see a light above the clock of Big Ben and a flag atop the Victoria Tower, which is the tower at the south end of the building, Parliament is in session; alternatively feel free to ask one the nice police men and women around the building. Both Houses, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, are usually in session until 1800hrs most days, sometimes later, depending on how the debates go. Be prepared for long line ups as everyone has to go through security and then you might have to wait outside the respective House to be let in. Line ups are longest at the start of the sessions, which is when the most hottest debates take place and Wednesdays are also very busy, as this is the day the Prime Minister usually attends Parliament. We took a chance and arrived around 1700hrs and were very lucky not to have encountered any lines at all. Once you enter you will be asked which House you wish to attend and then be given a coloured card (Green for the Commons and Red for the Lords – in line with the colours of their respective benches in the Chambers), depending on how much time you have, the length of the lines and the time of day, make your pick. If you arrive early in the day and want to witness some loud and interesting debates, pick the House of Commons. If you don’t want to wait that long and you are under time pressure, the line ups for the House of Lords are usually shorter and the House of Lords Chamber is the nicer one of the two. You can also opt for both Houses or none and admire the public areas. We opted for both Houses and started with the House of Lords.

The stained glass window in Westminster Hall

The stained glass window in Westminster Hall

Photography is only allowed in Westminster Hall, everywhere else it is forbidden. Once you are through security you will be pointed into the right direction and everywhere you go there will be somebody telling you which way you need to go. In both Houses you are required to hand your coats and bags to security guards who will take your items and give you a ticket for retrieval. You will be guided up some stairs and then called in and enter the House of Lords in a gallery above the Lords. There are 750 Peers (as the members of the House of Lords are called), which are not elected by popular vote. Some Peers have inherited their title whilst others have been appointed by the Queen. The House of Lords has no real power to pass a law on their own, their role is advisory only. The chamber itself is church like, with stained glass and carved walls. At the far end of the room, opposite of where you are sitting in the gallery, you will see the Queen’s gilded throne; she is the only one who may sit there, which she is only allowed to do once a year, when she gives a speech to formally open Parliament.

I couldn't resist the little crown

I couldn’t resist the little crown

Once you are ready to leave don’t forget to pick up your belongings before making your way down the stairs again. If, like us, you are going to visit the House of Commons as well, just ask one of the many very helpful attendants and they will guide you to the right corridor. The House of Commons is a lot smaller and of the 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) only 450 can be seated, with the rest of them having to stand at the ends. This is where the power of the land resides; the House of Commons is as powerful as the House of Lords, Prime Minister and the Queen combined. This is where the fiery debates take place and you can watch these from the visitors gallery, which these days is seated behind security glass. Keep an eye out for two red lines on the floor, this is the line that cannot be crossed when debating  the other side. It is two sword-lengths apart, to prevent literal clashing of the swords. The Queen is not allowed to enter the Commons Chamber; the last monarch to do so was Charles I, and we know how that turned out.

Once you have finished visiting the Houses make sure you take a look around all the other areas that are open to the public.

Spotted this on top of a water feature in the courtyard

Spotted this on top of a water feature in the courtyard

This was our first visit to the Houses of Parliament and I just found it so interesting. You can feel the history all around you, you get a real sense that this is a building that would have lots to tell if it could talk. I wish I could have taken photos inside, so instead I tried to take photos of lesser known parts of this famous building.

One of a few statues within the Hall

One of a few statues within the Hall

There is lots more information on the official Houses of Parliament website, specifically it will also let you know what debates are upcoming and when Parliament is in Session. During the summer months the only way to see the Chambers is through a guided tour, so if you are planning to do that, visit the website, which will tell you how to make a booking for these tours.

Parliament is in Session

Parliament is in Session

Categories: British History, Europe Trip 2014, European History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

London Planning – Done (or how to cram everything into 2 days)

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It is only two months until we get to the UK for our Europe trip, so I thought it was about time that we get our UK itinerary organized. Plus, we Southern Albertans woke up to 10-15cm of snow this morning, so no outside photography today, instead it was a good day to plan and research.

A week ago we sat down in a restaurant to discuss what each of us wanted to do and see on this trip. The usual things appeared on our list for London: the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, shopping on Oxford Street – especially in Selfridges, and then my husband informs us that he would like to visit the Tate Gallery. I was about to make note of this, when our teenage daughter exclaimed “No, not the Tate Gallery, let’s go to the National Gallery instead.” At which point both us parents nearly fell off our chairs. Once we had steadied ourselves, we proceeded to feel said teenagers forehead to check for a temperature, which might explain this out of character request. I am happy to report that she was in full health; it was just a sudden onset of an interest in some paintings – nothing more. The National Gallery has therefore made it onto our itinerary.

We arrive in London on a Sunday and leave again early Tuesday morning, which made planning a little difficult, as some sites are not open on Sunday; specifically St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, both of which are open for Services only on a Sunday. So just when I thought I had the order of sites roughly nailed down, my husband, yet again, mentions that he would like to do something that wasn’t on the list as yet. He wants to see a play or a show in the West End. Nothing wrong with that, however, this meant moving our trip to the House of Commons/Lords up in our timetable to have the evening free for a trip to the theatre. It was then that I realized that Westminster Abbey closes rather early, at 1530hrs, which meant another round of reshuffling. I must say I was getting rather frustrated with Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s at that point!

And then there is the small matter of the Tower of London, for which the time of visit also had to be moved up – not ideal as far as I am concerned, as no doubt it will be packed around lunchtime. I really wanted to go there in the later afternoon, when crowds in the summer are usually a little lighter.  The things I do to accommodate my family’s wishes, and then they wonder why I went to Alaska on my own last year (here is a link directly to the first post about that trip)!

A total of 19 different sites/activities, one theatre show, miles of walking and numerous tube stations have now all been crammed into two days, well, actually it’s only one and a half days (but that would have made for a rather long blog post title), given our lunchtime arrival on Sunday.

After spending almost four hours planning and fine tuning and reacquainting myself with the London Tube map (I love the organised chaos that is the Tube!), the list is done, and yes, both Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s will be visited on Monday.

Now, all I need to do is find some trendy looking, but comfortable shoes that can protect my feet from the inevitable aches and pains that will come with this action packed part of our trip (recommendations highly encouraged!).

Categories: Europe Trip 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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