Friday, 10 August 2012

The Ayes have it: Westminster Palace, aka the Houses of Parliament

Truth be told I'm not a rabidly political animal, although I do admire that passion and depth of knowledge in others (a bit like watching those hardy souls who go swimming in the Serpentine on Christmas Day; I think it's very laudable, but faced with such a Herculean task myself I usually end up watching a box set of The Thick of It with a glass of wine instead). Whilst I dutifully toddle off to the local infant school to cast my vote when my country needs me, I pretty much forget about the whole process until next time.

So, finding myself with a couple of hours to kill before meeting a friend for drinks in Westminster, I thought I would partake of the tour of Westminster Palace - more commonly known to most of us as the Houses of Parliament. Summer Opening hours means that tours run from 9.15am to 4.30pm every day except Sunday; I may have just been lucky but I bought my ticket from the Jewel Tower opposite on the day and got a place on the very next tour. The tour lasts 75 minutes and includes the following:

Westminster Hall
Almost four cricket pitches long and with six-foot thick stone walls, this is the oldest building in Parliament and virtually the only one to survive the devastating fire of 1834, witnessed and painted by Turner. In medieval times when you incurred a debt a tally stick was broken in half and a piece given to each person; when the debt was paid, the halves were reunited and the stick kept by the Exchequer as proof. Apparently workmen hired to dispose of the sticks put them in the furnaces in the basement under the House of Lords and then went off to the pub; the ensuing blaze destroyed most of the ancient palace. This is the only place on the tour you are allowed to take photos.

The Robing Room
This is where the Queen puts on her ceremonial robes and the Imperial State Crown before the State Opening of Parliament. Frescoes representing various virtues as epitomised by Arthurian legend adorn the walls, although the painter William Dyce discovered that this particular technique works rather better in the sunshine of Italy than the drizzle of England, and died before he finished the whole set. There is a small, endearingly threadbare velvet Chair of State and a footstool used by Queen Victoria, who at only 5ft tall may have needed a little help to reach it.

The Royal Gallery
Used for state receptions and other important events, the Gallery features portraits of various kings and queens and two enormous paintings; one of Nelson and one of Wellington. Addresses from visiting dignitaries to members of both Houses usually take place here.

The House of Commons
Smaller than you'd expect, this room of beautiful wood-panelling and green leather benches on each side is where our laws are made. A red line on the floor in front of each set of benches may not be crossed during debates; it divides the members of each party by the length of two swords and presumably shows that discussions have always been heated.

The House of Lords
Dramatically more ornate, the House of Lords houses both the golden splendour of the Royal Throne and the relative simplicity of the Woolsack. The Royal Throne is modelled on the medieval Coronation Chair in nearby Westminster Abbey and is used by the Queen during the State Opening of Parliament; the Woolsack is basically a large red cushion stuffed with wool, introduced in the 1300s as a symbol of the source of England's wealth, and is used by the Lord Speaker.
When the Queen arrives at the House of Lords for the State Opening of Parliament, an official called Black Rod is traditionally sent to the Commons to summon them to hear the Queen's speech; to prove their independence, they slam the door in his face. Dressed in black and carrying a black rod topped with a Victorian coin, he then bangs three times on the door before he is admitted - you can see a small splintered section on the door where it is struck.

Central Lobby
My favourite - gorgeous and impressive vaulted lobby with mosaics of the UK's patron saints and statues of England and Scotland's kings and queens around the walls.

I've left quite a lot out, so there's plenty left to inform and surprise on the tour; I took my student ID and got in for £10, so check the prices before you go. Also be prepared for some predictably hefty security - a bit like boarding an international flight, complete with the obligatory awful photograph.

A chance to stand where history has been, and is being, made.

Yours patriotically,

Girl About Town xx

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