As a British resident I can visit the Houses of Parliament for free through my MP (Member of Parliament – elected official) midweek. However this wasn't convenient for me so I elected to do one of the audio guide tours at the weekend, whilst Parliament was closed for summer recess. Overseas visitors can also visit this way – I recommend booking in advance. I believe guided tours are also available, but are more expensive.
The building that houses Parliament - which comprises the House of Commons (elected MPs) and the House of Lords (appointed as life peers by the Queen on advice of the Prime minister) was built in the nineteenth century after the original was destroyed by fire, although there are older parts.
The audio tour starts in Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving part (11th Century). If you ever saw photos or TV coverage of when HM the Queen Mother died in 2002, this is the room her lying-in-state occurred. It is also used for ceremonial addresses such as royal Jubilees and top flight dignitaries.
You get to visit both Houses and it is interesting to note that they are both much smaller than they look in photos or on the TV and you are not allowed to sit on any of the seats sadly. Although Parliament was not in session, it was busy with visitors. The audio tour is very well done and I recommend it for learning more about the building, and what happens here. This was a very worthwhile place to visit on your break to London.
The Houses of Parliament aka The Palace of Westminster is located close to Westminster tube station and is on numerous bus routes for easy access. Bags will be searched on entry and there are restriction on what you can take in (water, food, bombs, guns), so remember to take them out of your bag first!
DURING MY WEEKEND escapade in London in September 2007, I had the opportunity to visit the Houses of Parliament. The Parliament is open to the public every year when the session is on recess from 31 July to 29 September, and during Saturdays in all year round. But if you are interested to attend various debates and public committee sessions, it is open to everyone with prior ticket bookings, or join the public queue few hours before the session begins.
Since I was a student, I got a discounted price of £8 (from £12), but for kids (aged 5-15) is £5, and family (2 adults + 2 kids) for £30. The tour arrangement was good where we were organised in a group of 20-25 persons with a tour guide. Unfortunately, the tour did not include the tour for Big Ben and the Clock Tower. It took almost one-and-a-half hours to complete the tour, including taking a snack in the small restaurant inside the compound.
There are so many things to learn from the tour. For example, why the motif in the House of Commons is green and red for the House of Lords? Moreover, what is the significance of the portraits (paintings) of St David, St Patrick, St Andrew and St George inside the Parliament? One of the rooms inside the Parliament reminded me of the 4 important virtues: courtesy, generosity, hospitality, mercy, including the importance of 'religion'.
The House of the Lords is one of the most decorated room and I could not explain how I feel when I was inside this place where legislations are examine and pass by unelected and unpaid 740 members which include Archbishops and bishops and hereditary and prominent peers. This is also a ceremonial place for the State Opening of Parliament by Her Majesty the Queen.
The House of Commons is an ordinary chamber which is commonly watched on TV live coverage. Watching the session on TV, I thought it is a huge room but being there, it is much smaller than expected. It has a seating capacity of 437 for the 646 members of the Parliament, including the side galleries for the public.
Other interesting places include the Central lobby, Queen's Robing Room, Sovereign's Entrance, Royal Gallery, St Stephen's Hall and the Westminster Hall (the original structure). I was mesmerized by the grandeur of the variety of painting collections in every wall of these rooms and lobbies.
By the way, the Clock Tower is one of the Parliament's best known features, popularly mistaken as the Big Ben. Actually, Big Ben is the nickname of the 'bell' housed inside the Clock Tower, and Augustus Pugin is the name of the clock designer.
For families planning to visit this government building, it is my personal opinion that the tour is not ideal especially for young kids considering that the majority of the attractions inside the buildings are much more of adults' interest; and too early for kids to understand the British politics! Remember, cameras are not allowed inside the main chambers of the Parliament, except in the assembly area of the tour and the Westminster Hall. The foreign language tours are also available at defnite schedules/times in German, Spanish, French and Italian.
On the other hand, it is worth visiting its official website to find out more about its schedules and online bookings. The website also provide relevant links for people who could not be able to visit the building. The online or virtual tours, including audio or podcasts tours offer convenient ways to explore the building.
In terms of accessiblity, there are bus and tubes transports available in the area. Bus stops and train stations are just few steps away from the Partiament. It is a walking distance from other tourist attractions such as Big Ben and London Eye. With regard to entrance fees, I checked in the website that for adult's ticket of 12 pounds in 2007, it is now 14 pounds; while kids' ticket is 6 pounds from 5 pounds, and for families (2 adults+2kids) from 30 pounds to 35 pounds.
OVERALL, both the exterior and interior of the building have architectural and historical significance, and there are must-see features that need to be explored while visiting the building.
The Palace of Westminster, or the Houses of Parliament as it is usually called, cannot fail to instil a sense of awe and a respect, whatever your political persuasion. It is one of the most recognised buildings in the world, and has come to represent England as a symbol of democracy. The beauty of the grade 1 listed Gothic architecture is the creation of the 19th century architect Charles Barry, and although many marvel at the design of the exterior, few are privy to the intricate beauty of the interior architecture and art.
The intimacy that TV coverage has provided means that everybody can recollect a momentous speech, a moment of passion, or a moment of sadness from the famous green leather benches of the House of Commons. Although I feel that I know the House of Commons as well as my own home, I have never had the chance to visit in person until now. The opportunity to accompany a school party gave me the trip of a lifetime.
We started our visit at Portcullis House. Built in 2001, Portcullis House provides offices for about one third of Members of Parliament, and is an interesting piece of architecture in its own right, with its, with its rows of tall chimneys, which are intended to recall the Victorian Gothic design of the Palace of Westminster. As we entered Portcullis house we were faced with a lot of policemen with large guns. Passing through the airport style security checks, we were allowed into the building and taken through an underground passageway into the Palace of Westminster itself. This exciting and rather furtive way of arriving in the building added a frisson of excitement to the whole visit.
As we emerged from the tunnel, we found ourselves in the ancient and very chilly Westminster Hall. The age of this hall overwhelms you; built in 1097 and measuring an enormous73 by 20 metres, it has a beautiful wooden hammer-beam roof (the largest medieval roof in northern Europe). The size of this hall takes your breath away, as you look up to the intricately carved griffins head on the roof above you, or down to the plaques in the floor that remind you of the lying in state that has taken place in the hall. Here we met Megan, our entertaining and informative guide for the tour.
Moving out of Westminster Hall into the Central Lobby, the sense of history really hits you. This lobby is often seen on the news, as a place where reporters interview MPs. It forms the centre of a crossroads; everything to the south leads to the House of Lords, and everything to the north is part of the House of Commons.
The central lobby has a bustling atmosphere as MPs and their aides rush through to meetings. It is a meeting place for Members of both Houses and also a place where MPs can meet their constituents. Once again, the beauty of the structure takes your breath away. The room itself is a stone octagon with an intricately tiled floor and a vaulted ceiling with panels that glitter with intricate mosaic art. Each mosaic panel depicts saints that represent the four parts of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland).
In a corner of the lobby is an incredibly quaint post office; with wrought iron grills and looking as if it has been transplanted directly from a Victorian street, this is for employees only.
~~The House of Lords~~
We were taken down the south corridor to the splendor of the House of Lords, the most lavish and opulent room in the Palace. It was easy to recognise the red leather benches of this house, but I didn't expect the magnificence of the gilt panelled ceiling, the beautiful stained glass windows - all overshadowed by the ornate gilded Royal Throne. We were not allowed to go fully into the Lords, but sat for while on the steps at the end, while our guide reminded us that the Queen only sits on the throne once a year, told us why the Lord Speaker sits on the Woolsack, and named some famous Lords who currently sit in the House as experts in their field.
~~The Members Lobby~~
Walking back through the central lobby into the north side of the building, we found ourselves standing in the members lobby. Here MPs pick up messages and business papers and congregate during the sittings of the House before and after business in the Chamber. This room was very different to the museum-like feel of the Lords. I was very aware of standing in the footsteps of some of the most famous politicians in history as I looked at the MPs pigeon holes and message boards. This had the feel of a working room - where the everyday business is carried out. Full size statues of Churchill, Lloyd George, Atlee and Thatcher loom hugely on pillars around the room. Each of them has their place due to the mark they made on history; Churchill in the war, Atlee for social reform, Thatcher for being the first woman Prime Minister. Churchill's foot is worn away by the tradition of MPs touching it for luck as they enter the House.
In this room, we could see for the first time signs of the bombing during WW2 that devastated the House of Commons. The chipped and broken arch leading into the chamber is known as the Churchill arch, as it was Winston Churchill who suggested that it was rebuilt from the rubble as a reminder of the sadness of war.
~~House of Commons~~
Initially I found the House of Commons a little disappointing after the breathtaking beauty of the Lords. Rebuilt after the Blitz, is has a rather functional and austere style, with its famous green benches, and wooden panelling. As we moved further in however, I was struck with an immense sense of history. We walked along the front benches and I briefly stood in front of the Dispatch boxes, amazed at the thought of the great men and women who had stood on that exact same spot. Our guide entertained us with stories of Michael Heseltine brandishing the mace and other scandals. As we looked at the red lines that ran along the carpet infront of the front benches, she explained that they were exactly the width of two swords apart, so that opposing sides could never attack each other, as they were never allowed to cross the line.
The Commons affected me just as strongly as the Lords; although it did not have the breathtaking architecture, the strong sense of history and occasion made up for it.
The division lobbies were a fascinating part of the visit. Two of these long, book-lined corridors run along each side of the House, and they are where the voting takes place. Our guide explained that one side is for Ayes and the other for Noes; as the speaker calls for a vote, those voting Aye (Yes) to any proposition walk through the division lobby to the right of the Speaker and those voting No through the lobby to the left. At the same time a bell starts ringing all through parliament, in the hairdressers, in the meeting rooms, and in several pubs in Whitehall. The bells rings for eight minutes, and MPs must come running to vote, since the door keepers shut the doors firmly in their faces once the bell stops ringing. The whips stand at the entrances, pointing the MPs in the right direction so that they vote with their parties. Once the door is shut, they each file past two officials who stand at lecturns. They say their name and Aye (or No) and then pass back into the House.
I loved this detail. Tony Blair tried to change the voting system to an electronic system, similar to that used in the Scottish parliament - but I am glad that his attempt to modernise failed. As well as continuing a very old tradition, we were told that this system of voting provided a welcome opportunity for some MPs to chat to each other.
~~The Rest of the Tour~~
As we said goodbye to our guide, we were left with an education officer, who took the students through a mock election as a way of demonstrating the differences between first past the post and PR. We also had a visit from our local MP, who conducted a quick Q&A session with the students. The whole visit was well managed and totally fascinating, and I was sorry that it had come to an end.
~~How to Visit~~
Although visiting the Houses of Parliament is free and accessible to anybody who cares to apply, in reality, obtaining a ticket is a fairly complicated process. For any UK resident, tours can be arranged by contacting their local MP. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to email your MP from the House of Commons webpage. Your MP will then send you a ticket for a future date, and may well give you a quick tour of the Houses, but the wait can be quite considerable and the tour will not be as extensive as an educational tour.
Another way of seeing the House of Commons is to watch a debate. UK residents and overseas visitors may watch debates for free on current issues or proposed new laws in both Houses by visiting the public galleries - but they do have to sit in the visitors gallery behind the glass safety screen. There is a public queue for both UK residents and foreign visitors - outside the Cromwell Green visitor entrance. A wait of one or two hours is common for these tickets.
I was lucky enough to be part of a school visit. Obtaining tickets for this visit was also difficult. The dates that tickets are released are publicised on the website, and it is then rather like getting tickets for a rock concert - pressing redial constantly and trying to get somebody to pick up before they are all sold out. My school started calling at 9am on the day the tickets were released - by midday they were all gone.
The trip was very special, and I think that such informative and lengthy tours are quite rare. The service provided by the Education Officers was exceptional- our guide made the visit very interactive and managed to impart a lot of interesting information without losing the interest of the students.
The Houses of Parliament comprise the two legislative bodies of the United Kingdom, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Commons is where the elected Members of Parliament meet to discuss legislation, and the Lords is where the unelected Lords meet to discuss proposed legislation from the Commons. Both Houses are found in the Palace of Westminster, on the north bank of the Thames. Visiting the Houses of Parliament is a lot less daunting than the heavy police presence around the Palace would suggest, which is reassuring given that the debates that take place there are carried out on your behalf! However, the means by which you visit the Palace, and the extent to which you can explore it, depend on the time of year you visit. If you visit the Palace when the Houses are in session, you can visit the Strangers' Galleries of the House of Commons and the House of Lords and watch the debates take place, and lobby your MP by visiting the Commons Lobby. There is no admission fee for visiting the Palace while the Houses are in session. In the Summer recess (August and September) the Houses are not sitting, and for the last couple of years, you have been able to book tickets to go on guided tours of the Palace through Ticketmaster (020 7344 9966 or www.ticketmaster.co.uk), which cost £3.50. The guided tours walk through the Palace from South to North, through both Houses. HISTORY The area of London now occupied by the Palace of Westminster was known in medieval times as Thorney, the island of briars. Despite being an unwelcoming and hostile fen, the location was chosen by King Canute for his royal residence due to the convenient proximity of the Thames for trade and transport. Additionally, Thorney was sufficiently distant from the City of London to separate the monarch from its inhabitants, with whom Kings frequently found themselves in disagreement. Edward the Confessor decided that the location would be i
deal for the construction of the first Abbey building, Westminster Abbey, and so that he could personally oversee its construction he built himself a residence alongside the river. Nothing remains today of Edward's Saxon palace, however, its location is the present home of the Palace of Westminster. When the Normans invaded Britain, William I established his first residence at the Tower of London, later moving to the location of the Palace of Westminster. His son, William II, oversaw the construction of the oldest of the buildings still standing in the present day Palace of Westminster - Westminster Hall, which opened in 1097. The Norman Palace built to replace Edward's Westminster Palace became the English monarch's principal residence throughout the Middle Ages, and inevitably the institutions of Government became collected in the area. When in residence at Westminster, the King was attended by his court. This Royal Council of bishops, nobles and ministers was the forerunner of the present House of Lords. Over the years, the knights from distant shires and towns were summoned to the Palace to report on the situation in their part of the country. In the 14th century, these knights began to meet with each other, separate from the Royal Council, and this arrangement ultimately led to the formation of the House of Commons. Since the Palace was never designed to accommodate two legislative bodies, as Parliament expanded, it far exceeded the space available for it in the Palace of Westminster. Throughout the Middle Ages, there was no recognised home for the House of Commons, while the Lords met in the White Chamber. After a major fire in 1512, Henry VIII abandoned the Palace of Westminster, moving to Whitehall Palace, and leaving the Palace free to develop as a parliamentary building rather than a royal residence. The Canons of St Stephen's, the religious order responsible for the maintenance of St Stephen'
;s Chapel within the Palace of Westminster, were disbanded in 1547, and by 1550, the chapel became the first permanent home of the House of Commons. In 1834, however, the Palace of Westminster was virtually destroyed by a fire, and the site was comprehensively redeveloped. A public competition to redesign the site was held, and won by Charles Barry, whose design incorporated Westminster Hall, which survived the fire, and the Crypt and Cloisters. Work began on rebuilding the Palace in 1840, and wasn't actually completed until 1870. This is the Palace that we see today. However, substantial rebuilding work was carried out after bomb damage to the Commons Chamber in 1941, which reopened in 1950. VISITING WHILE PARLIAMENT IS SITTING If you want to visit the Houses of Parliament while Parliament is sitting - i.e. during most of the year - you have three options, all of which are free. Firstly, if you are resident in the United Kingdom, you can write to your Member of Parliament and ask for a permit to tour the building. Each Member of Parliament is given a strictly limited number of permits per year to distribute to constituents wishing to tour the Palace of Westminster. Permit holders visit at a prearranged time either on Monday to Wednesday mornings, or after 3.30pm on Fridays. Secondly, if you are a resident in the United Kingdom, you can turn up to petition your Member of Parliament. Go to St Stephen's Entrance to the Palace (on the West side of the Palace, on Millbank, opposite Westminster Abbey), and tell the policeman on the door that you wish to petition your MP. He'll direct you through the security checks up to the Commons Lobby, where you give the name of your Member of Parliament. If your MP is in the Palace when you visit, they are obliged to come and see you to discuss whatever matter you want brought to their attention. Obviously, your MP won't appreciate it if you summon them for no rea
son, so don't actually do this unless you genuinely want to discuss political business. Thirdly, anyone can sit in the Strangers' Gallery of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Parliament sits until very late into the evening from Monday to Thursday, but doesn't always sit on Fridays - check before visiting. If you visit the Palace in peak times (i.e. mid-afternoon), then you might have to queue outside for around half an hour or so before entering, however, if you visit after about 5pm (Monday to Thursday), you should be able to walk straight in. The only problem you might encounter is with Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday afternoons - to get into the Strangers' Gallery for this, British residents have to ask their Member of Parliament for tickets. As with petitioning, go to St Stephen's Entrance, and tell the policeman on the door that you wish to sit in the Strangers' Gallery. They will assume automatically that you want to visit the House of Commons, which inevitably hosts more lively and important debates - if you want to visit the Lords, then tell the policemen in St Stephen's Hall immediately upon entering. - COMMONS For the Commons, you pass through the security checks into St Stephen's Hall, where you are directed to sit on a bench to wait to be admitted. A representative of the Serjeant-at-Arms hands you a ticket, which you have to fill out with your name and address, while you wait to be admitted to the Gallery. Visitors are sent up to the Gallery in batches of ten or so, and have to walk up two flights of spiral stairs to the next security check. En route, pick up one of the leaflets about the House of Commons, which includes a handy, labelled photograph of the view from the Strangers' Gallery - so you can work out where everything is. After checking your bag and parting with your completed ticket, you're finally admitted to the Strangers' Gallery. A
s you enter, pick up a copy of the day's agenda from the table, so you can see what bills are being discussed that day. You're not allowed to do anything that might disrupt the debate in the Commons below, such as talk or stand (other than to get to your seat), nor are you allowed to read. Essentially, this means that you're limited to listening to the debate. If you've little or no interest in politics, then that's likely to be spectacularly dull, unless you're lucky enough to have chanced upon a lively debate. One television screen at Gallery level allows you to see the MP currently speaking close to, and another lets you see the title of the debate that is currently under way. This second screen gives the current time in the bottom right hand corner, and the time that the current speaker began in the bottom left hand corner. As you look down at the Commons floor, you can see the Government seated on the left hand side, and the Opposition on the right. Immediately opposite the Speakers' Gallery is the Press Gallery, which is usually empty, unless a particularly lively debate is under way. The bottom row of the Press Gallery is where the reporters for Hansard sit. Hansard is the publication collecting together the entire proceedings of the Houses of Parliament, published daily with complete transcripts of the previous days' debates. If you sit in the Gallery for more than fifteen minutes, you'll see one of the Hansard reporters scurry off with a completed notepad to go and type it up for the following day's edition. You may think that there's little advantage to visiting the House of Commons over watching it on television on BBC Parliament, however, there are several major differences. Television coverage of the House is exclusively confined to shots of the speaking Member - if you're there in person, you can look at other members, and watch them doze off. Additionally, some of the other mem
bers' comments which sound like indistinct murmurs on the television coverage can be easily distinguished in the House itself, because the television coverage only uses the audio from the microphone nearest the speaker. Once, when I visited, I could clearly hear the Opposition's jibes at Margaret Beckett, when she entered the chamber. - LORDS For the Lords, pass through the security checks into St Stephen's Hall, then turn right in the Central Lobby into the corridor leading to the Peers Lobby. The right hand side of that corridor is marked out with a red cordon, and those waiting to visit the Strangers' Gallery of the Lords sit here. Visitors to the House of Lords Strangers' Gallery are admitted in much smaller groups than those for the Commons - usually only three or four at a time. As for the Commons, you complete a ticket handed to you by a representative of Black Rod with your name and address in the Peers' Lobby. From here, you are directed up a spiral staircase to the Gallery security check. Here, you check your bags and hand over your completed ticket to be admitted to the Strangers' Gallery. On your way up, pick up the leaflet on the House of Lords, and the Notices and Orders of the Day, which details the events happening in the House that day. The Strangers' Gallery of the House of Lords is a lot smaller than that of the Commons, but the chamber itself is vastly more impressive. The House of Lords is probably less familiar to most visitors than is the House of Commons. Immediately opposite the Gallery is the beautifully ornate Throne where the Queen sits to deliver the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament. At all other times, the throne is surrounded by a brass rail. As with the Commons, the Lords representing the Government sit on the left, and those representing the Opposition sit on the right. However, there are also non-partisan Lords, who sit in crossbenches
in the middle of the House, and bishops, who sit alongside the Government Lords. The House of Lords is considerably warmer inside than is the House of Commons, which is an unfortunate repercussion of the differing times of their construction. The Lords dates back to 1870, where the Commons was rebuilt (with air-conditioning) in 1950. Inevitably, this means that you often see the older members of the House nodding off on the backbenches. As with the Commons, visitors are not allowed to read, nor to do anything that could disrupt the debate in the House below. However, these rules don't seem to be so strictly enforced as in the Commons, so you could probably get away with talking in a muted whisper. Also, as with the Commons, television screens at Gallery level allow you to see the Lord currently speaking up close, and allow you to see the title of debate currently underway. NOTES ON SECURITY So, if you visit both of the Houses of Parliament, you have to go through three security checks. At the time of writing, these security checks are extremely tight - far more so than they were when I last visited the Palace while Parliament was sitting, in 1998. The first check, at the entrance to St Stephen's Hall is similar to airport security checks. You place your bags, wallet and keys on a conveyor belt to go through an X-ray machine, while you pass through a metal detector. Before you're allowed to pick up your possessions from the conveyor belt, you're frisked by a policeman. At the Commons Gallery security check, you have to check in your bags, mobile phone and umbrella, before passing through another metal detector, and undergoing yet another frisking. At the Lords Gallery security check, you have to check in your bags, mobile phone and umbrella. However, there is no metal detector here, nor are you frisked again... so if time is pressing when you visit, and you only have time for one
of the two chambers, the House of Lords will take less time to visit. OTHER THOUGHTS There is a small shop as you enter St Stephen's Hall, which remains open until 5pm when the house is in session, selling souvenirs of the Palace, and booklets about its history. Notably, the shop doesn't sell parliamentary bills or material pertaining to the politics of the house - these can be found in the Parliamentary Bookshop on the corner of Parliament Street and Bridge Street. When you're visiting the Houses of Parliament, you are inevitably bound to see Members of Parliament that you recognise walking the halls. The last time I visited, for example, I saw Keith Vaz, the first Asian Minister of Parliament to sit in the Commons, and the man who was controversially involved in securing passports for the Hinduja brothers, in St Stephen's Hall. VISITING IN THE SUMMER RECESS If you want to visit the Palace of Westminster during the Summer recess, then you have to buy a ticket for the guided tours that operate in August and September. The tours ran in both 2000 and 2001, and are likely to run in future years, but Government has yet to decide whether this will be a regular event. Tickets for the tours can be booked through Ticketmaster (020 7344 9966 or www.ticketmaster.co.uk), and cost £3.50 per person. You book your ticket for a specific half hour period, and have to get there about twenty minutes or so before the tour is scheduled to begin. Pick up your tickets outside St Stephen's Entrance to the Palace, and head south along Bankside to the entrance south of the Palace, joining a queue outside of the building, where your guide gives a basic introduction to the Palace's history. Most of the guides work for the Houses of Parliament and have a good understanding of the plan of the Palace, however, their knowledge of the art in the building or of the political process varies enormously. I went on a
tour of the building in September 2001, and discovered that I actually knew more about the British political process than my guide did - in fact, she actually asked me to answer questions put to her by other members of the group! There are around twenty people in each group. The groups are supposed to proceed around the Palace in order, and your guide gets a little flustered if questions from people in your group hold her back. As you enter each room, the guide gives you a brief description of what happens in that room, before asking if you have any questions with an expression that suggests that there had better not be. The guided tour begins at the Norman Porch Entrance, where the Queen enters the Palace on the State Opening of Parliament, and essentially follows her route from there to the House of Lords. You pass first into the robing room, where Her Majesty is dressed in her robes, and then pass into the Royal Gallery. The Royal Gallery is beautifully decorated with a massive mural of the Battle of Waterloo on the wall along one side, and one of Trafalgar along the other. Light pours in through stained glass windows above the murals bearing the coats of arms of Kings and Queens of England and Scotland. Massive royal portraits look down from the north and south walls. In one corner of the gallery, a selection of historical documents are displayed, including the Bill of Rights, the death warrant of Charles I, and a warrant for the arrest of Oliver Cromwell. From there, you head north into the Prince's Chamber, the ante-room to the House of Lords. It's a small room - two tour groups can just about squeeze in at the same time - but a very ornate one. The House of Lords is very impressive up close, it seems far more like a chapel than a legislative chamber, with the ornate gold-covered throne and canopy on the south wall, and the intricately carved wooden figures. It is difficult to believe that the Lords is the
highest court of appeal in the land! You're not allowed to sit on the benches, but you can perch on the edge of the woolsack - literally a big red sack full of wool - where the Lord Chancellor sits. The guide stops you before you leave the Lords and gives a very brief explanation of the Lords' role in debating Bills proposed by the Commons, before you head through the Peers' Lobby to the Central Lobby. The Central Lobby is absolutely beautifully decorated. The four mosaics representing the patron saints of the United Kingdom above the doorways at the four main compass points are particularly impressive. From here, you continue north to the Commons' Lobby, where members of the public come to petition their Members of Parliament. Particularly notable here is the imposing statue of Winston Churchill, whose left foot has been worn down, because Conservative MPs traditionally touch it for luck before giving a maiden speech in the House. The archway beside Churchill's statue is the only part of the bomb-damaged House of Commons to have been retained. The doors in the arch are familiar to anyone who has seen the State Opening of Parliament - you can clearly where Black Rod strikes the door in order to summon the Commons to hear the Queens' Speech. From here, you head into the No Lobby, which is situated to the east of the House of Commons, and runs the length of it. When a vote is called in the House, Members of Parliament have only a limited period of time to register their support or disapproval of it. Bells ring throughout the Palace, in the Ministries along Whitehall, and in several nearby pubs(!) to summon MPs, and they have to pass through either the No or Aye lobby to register their vote. It's an archaic process, but one which has been maintained, in order that the Members have more of an opportunity to mingle with each other. After passing through the narrow doorway at the north end of the No Lobby - t
he doors cannot be fully opened, to ensure that no more than one member at a time passes through - you head back south into the House of Commons Chamber. The first thing that strikes you about the Chamber is that it is a good deal smaller than it appears on television. In fact, there isn't enough room for the 659 current MPs to all fit in the House at once - only 437 can be comfortably seated there. As with the House of Lords, you can't sit on any of the benches, however, you can go and touch the dispatch boxes that the lead members of both sides of the House lean on during each debate. These dispatch boxes contain holy books of every religion represented by MPs, and each new MP must be sworn in touching one of the boxes. Also worthy of note are the two red lines that run along the centre of the room. These are precisely 2.5 metres apart - the length of two drawn swords. Members of Parliament cannot speak in the House if they pass the red line on their side, and are therefore theoretically unable to attack each other... other than with their tongues! The mace which sits on the table beside the dispatch boxes when the House is sitting is notably absent, so there's no opportunity to "do a Heseltine" - a great disappointment! From here, you head back to the Central Lobby, and West into St Stephen's Hall, on the site of the original St Stephen's Chapel, where the House of Commons used to sit. Although the chapel was destroyed in the fire of 1834, the brass studs where the Speaker's chair used to be can still be seen on the floor. One thing to look out for here is the statue of Lord Falkland, a one-time Member of Parliament, whose sword has been broken ever since it had to be cut to release a suffragette who chained herself to it in 1908. Finally, at the western end of St Stephen's Hall, you head north into Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace, dating back to 1097. The first Eng
lish Parliament met here in 1265, and although the roof was rebuilt in the 14th century, the hall managed to survive both the 1834 fire, and the Blitz completely intact. The hall has seen many important moments in London's history - Thomas More, Charles I and the Gunpowder Plotters were all tried here. Westminster Hall is only used today for public ceremonies, though the Grand Committee Room off the hall is, at present, used in a trial scheme where MPs can discuss non-partisan issues in parallel with the House of Commons. The tour ends here, and visitors make their way past the shop, at the far end of Westminster Hall, out into New Palace Yard, which offers great photo opportunities of Big Ben! CONCLUSIONS Whichever way you choose to visit the Palace of Westminster, it's a truly fascinating place to walk around. Every facet of the building is steeped with traditions, many of which even have a historical explanation! As you walk around the Palace, you get a real feeling for the building's role in history, and the heavy burden of history placed on currently serving Members. If you're strapped for cash in London, popping in to see democracy in action, in its glorious, ponderous, argumentative, raw state is a truly fascinating experience, and unlike many of London's main tourist attractions, is absolutely free. The guided tour during the Summer recess obviously offers poorer value for money, but is much more interesting - it's fascinating to walk through the Houses of Parliament at ground level, and lean on the despatch box from which the Prime Minister answers questions every Wednesday afternoon, or perch on the woolsack in the House of Lords, or even touch Winston Churchill's shoe by the entrance to the House of Commons. The guides' knowledge varies enormously - mine knew little about the art and political machinations of the Houses of Parliament, but knew a great deal about the trad
itions, and what happens at the State Opening of Parliament. So, visiting the Houses of Parliament is really worth doing if you're visiting central London on a weekday - though not many British people seem to bother, most of the visitors are foreign tourists! Do bear in mind though that at weekends the place is very closed, so all you can do is admire the Gothic architecture from the outside.