If you're anything like me, the Palace of Westminster (commonly known as the Houses of Parliament) is largely a mystery. You may have seen it in pictures, or on TV. If you've been to London you've probably walked past it and marvelled at its neo-gothic spires and the sheer height of its great towers. And you've probably gazed up at the iconic Big Ben, because it's part of what coming to London is all about! But the inside, to me, has always seemed like a closely guarded secret, despite glimpses of the two Houses on political TV. Because of this, the idea of going on a tour and finding out what went on within those impressive walls was a compelling prospect. So last week, we queued up at the entrance beside the statue of Oliver Cromwell, and after a short wait, we were inside.
Inside the Palace of Westminster
We were lucky enough to be led by a fantastic blue-badge guide on a tour of the building, but if you prefer to explore at your own leisure, there are audio guides available in a great selection of different languages.
The first thing that strikes you, as you're led through airport-style security and into the huge Westminster Hall, is the age of the building. Wooden angels peer down from above, carved into the elaborate hammerbeam roof, and you can't help but contemplate the historic kings and dignitaries throughout the ages who've stood here. More recently, the late Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Aung Sang Suu Kyi have addressed crowds in this room. In fact, built in 1097, this is the oldest part of the building. Much of the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire in 1834, and the majority of the palace's rooms were rebuilt under the reign of Queen Victoria.
Her influence is apparent in statues throughout the building, and more subtly, in the Queen’s Robing Room. Here, before the Chair of State, you’ll find a footstool: this was for the 4’10” (150cm) Victoria to rest her feet on so they didn’t dangle in an unqueenly way. Today, this is where Queen Elizabeth II waits during the State Opening of Parliament each year, before moving on to the throne in the House of Lords.
The lavish decoration throughout the palace is magnificent, but what struck me the most was the artwork. Frescoes and bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Arthurian legends adorn the Queen’s Robing Room, hand chosen by a devoted Prince Albert for his true love, Queen Victoria. Scenes from British military history, including the Battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar, run the length of the Royal Gallery, while in the Prince’s Chamber, portraits of leading Renaissance figures bring the room to life. Henry VIII and his six wives, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and more are all represented here. From the ceremonial rooms associated with the monarch, we move to rooms that see a daily, more practical use. The Lords Chamber, with its famous red seats (which you’re not allowed to sit on, unless you’re a member) and the Commons Chamber, with the green seats.
We’re shown the voting rooms – two separate rooms where people voting yes and no go and wait to be counted, and the spectacular octagonal Central Lobby, the room at the heart of the palace through which the commons and lords pass, before heading to their respective houses.
Fantastic sense of history
Details, rituals, customs, memories, precedents: there is almost no end to the fascinating stories that go along with the grand rooms of the Palace of Westminster. Best of all, those events and stories lead up to the building’s modern day use as the seat of government, and show how things have evolved over the centuries. As if to drive this point home, during our tour, filming was taking place outside for Hollywood film ‘Suffragette’, so we even got a glimpse of a few actors in Edwardian costume, bringing an earlier age to life. I highly recommend this tour. If you have a similar sense of this building’s mystique, you can look forward to a sense of wonder when you’re done. Go to the Parliament website for all the information you need to book tickets and take a tour yourself. If you liked this blog post, leave us a comment below