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!