Big Ben is one of the most, if not the most, iconic landmark in London. Whenever you see an action movie blowing up a city, it’s always Big Ben that gets the brunt of the action. But what makes Big Ben and Westminster Palace so important to Britain’s history? Besides being the literal Houses of Parliament, the former palace has been site to a litany of conspiracy plots, regime change, the suffragette movement, and of course, political debates.
As you well know, the United Kingdom recently voted in the historic #Brexit and will now be leaving the European Union (maybe). On the day of the vote, I decided to take a tour of the Houses of Parliament and walk in the footsteps of history as it was being made in the polling stations. No matter how you voted or feel about the motion, it will forever be a part of Britain’s infamous history.
At first, I didn’t even know the Houses had a tour open to the public. But on every Saturday, and most days out of the year, you can book a guided (£25) or audio tour (£18.50). Always check the website because it can typically be closed for business, debates, etc. Unless you are a UK citizen; however, you cannot tour the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben’s clock face. Of this, I was a bit sad, especially since Big Ben will be silent due to restoration starting in 2017 and will continue until 2020.
If you don’t buy your ticket online, you must by it from a separate location than the entrance of the Palace. Across the street (on the Westminster Tube Line side) and on the river, you’ll find a corner building that has a small ticket office. Here is where you pay, and then you must cross the busy intersection again down Abingdon Street until you almost come to the glorious Victoria Tower Gardens.
Note: I highly recommend Victoria Tower Gardens. It’s always quiet because it’s out of the way, and you get gorgeous views of the Houses of Parliament and a lovely Rodin sculpture right on the Thames.
After going through a strict security line with airport level scrutiny, you finally enter the magnificent Westminster Hall. This massive foyer completely engulfs you upon entering, and it’s impossible not to feel small. This oldest part of the palace has hammer-beamed ceilings that were put in place by King Richard II, plaques on the ground commemorating historic events, and restored damage from the Blitz, which shook London during WWII.
This hall was where many trials occurred. King Charles I was tried here at the end of the English Civil War, which led to his beheading in front of the former Whitehall Palace. William Wallace, Thomas More, Cardinal John Fisher, Guy Fawks, and others were all tried here, too.
Also, this foyer is where the lying-in-state occurs, so when Winston Churchill died, he was put in this foyer, and the public were allowed to file by and pay their respects while surrounded by armed guards. It was the same with the Queen Mother when she passed in 2002.
You follow the stairs up to St. Stephen’s Hall. This is the last place you can take photos freely. Once through this room, security officers are very strict with any photography or filming. St. Stephen’s Hall is a long corridor decorated with massive paintings depicting notable moments while above them are gorgeous stained glass windows said to replicate Sainte Chapelle in Paris. This hall also saw moments of the women’s suffragette movement.
A plaque posted in the hall reads:
On April 27, 1909, Miss Marjory Humes chained herself to the nearby statue of 2nd Viscount Falkland as a part of a demonstration in support of women’s suffrage. The spur of the right boot was accidentally broken off by the chains.
The Palace of Westminster was first built in the eleventh century and acted as a residence for the monarchy until a fire destroyed it in 1512, the early days of King Henry VIII’s reign, but he eventually relocated to Whitehall Palace which, today, is the Banqueting Hall next to 10 Downing Street. The restoration of the building led it to be a house for Parliament rather than another residence. In 1834, another fire, more destructive than the first, destroyed much of the interior, but that led to a massive expansion adding another 1000 rooms. But during The Blitz, the Commons Chamber took most of the damage, which needed a full restoration again.
Once through St. Stephen’s Hall, you enter the Central Lobby. Normally, lobbies are dull and stale, but this one, despite the on-going construction, was beautiful. The mosaic tile ceilings give an ethereal and religious tone to the building, but the gold leaf accentuates the sheer importance of the structure.
It is octagon shaped, but because of the number of tourists and security guards, it is quite impossible to spin around freely. But this lobby is the central point between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. You go either right or left, in a manner of speaking.
The tour takes you to the House of Lords first. Completely decorated in red, the hallways and rooms feel oppressive. The red velvet curtains hang heavily over the red carpet, and the deep wood benches and walls only make it feel more palatial and regal. It was deep under the House of Lords in 1605 that Guy Fawkes had planted 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the building in retaliation for King James I’s rise to the throne.
But today, this corner of the former palace has the most royal decor in the building, that is to say, it doesn’t feel very political. From the hallway, you enter the Peers Lobby and then the Lords Chamber. This is where members of the House get together. The red benches and opulent decor make the space feel over-the-top. Complete with a gold throne, the room is where you typically will see televised debates and addresses to the nation, in particular the State Opening of Parliament.
If you haven’t gotten enough of the gold leaf and bright chandeliers, through the Lords Chamber, you enter the Prince’s Chamber; a small room surrounded by portraits of the monarchs through the centuries and massive paintings toward the ceiling depicting moments in the British naval history. But it’s the next room, the Royal Gallery, that takes your breath away. The Prince’s Chamber is lovely, but it’s tiny in comparison.
Restoration was going on while I visited, so I couldn’t get the full effect of the Royal Gallery, but the massive portraits of former monarchs (much larger than those in the Prince’s Chamber), make you appreciate what you’re walking into. The only other room on this side of the palace was the Norman Porch. It’s the grandest entrance in the palace, or rather the Sovereign’s entrance.
The tour takes you back through the House of Lords and then into the Commons Chamber. Much more humble and rather drab, this green area has notable wear and tear. I noticed several of the benches had tears in the fabric, and the carpet wasn’t as pristine as the lovely House of Lords. Statues of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill tower of you in the Members Lobby almost staring into your soul.
The Commons Chamber was opened in the 1950s after The Blitz took out the original Victorian chamber. This much smaller chamber is not visited by the monarchy. The last to do so was King Charles I in 1642 when he demanded the heads of five treasonous members of Parliament (MPs) to which he was denied answers.
After the Commons Chamber, that’s the end of the tour. There are no additional “royal” rooms to discover, but that doesn’t mean the wing is any less important to Britain’s history in politics.
I left the Houses of Parliament a little wiser and thrilled that I got to see the political space on such a historic day; the Brexit vote. I wholly recommend anyone to buy tickets online and go see this space while you can. It’s not as grand as Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle, but with what those walls have seen over the centuries, it’s no wonder it’s a favorite icon in the London skyline.