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Londonist's Big Day Out: Westminster

By Londonist Last edited 134 months ago
Londonist's Big Day Out: Westminster
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We pointed out on Monday that, as Londoners, it's very easy to ignore the very things that make the capital so special. While we sometimes get annoyed with the hoards of tourists who seem to be constantly underfoot, they get to experience a very different city from the one that we all too often take for granted. To try and rectify this we've been aiming to get out and about a bit more in order to see what's inside some of the buildings that we dismiss as nothing more than good backdrops to bad photographs. We decided to aim high for our first group excursion and thanks to Nick, our political insider who finds himself in the thick of it most days, we set off with a special invitation to explore the Palace of Westminster.

This has turned out to be quite a long post, so in case you don’t stay with us until the end, here’s the take-home message: you must go visit! It’s easier than you might think to get inside. Indeed, it’s every UK citizen's right to get at least as far as the Central Lobby. See the end of the post for more details.

The first thing that struck us as we wound our way through the security cordon was the lack of people. Every day we despair at the queue to the London Dungeon as we walk past, and yet here we were at the heart of British politics with nearly a thousand years of history on the other side of the security portacabins and we didn't have a single exchange student to slap out of the way. There's obviously room for improvement in getting the visitor numbers up, but we'll get to that later. If the imposing chaps with machine guns are putting you off then we can reveal that they were quick to let us through despite the fact that we were all carrying excitable bulges in our pockets.

What's this, sir?

Would you believe it's a strange fruit?

Of course. We're never surprised at the strange fruit that passes through here sir. Off you go.

And before we knew it we were inside (Chinese pears and all), following in the footsteps of Royalty, politicians and reality television celebrities.

Continue reading after the jump for an extended peek at what exactly the Houses of Parliament contain, and the best way to get yourself inside without having to run for office.

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First, a little history. The Palace started as small abbey or minster to the west of London – hence the name WESTMINSTER. This church was subsequently enlarged and became Westminster Abbey. In 1099, William Rufus decided to build himself a new gaff, now known as the Palace of Westminster. Throughout the Middle Ages the Palace continued to be one of the principal homes of the monarch. However, whereas its palatial status has remained unchanged, its appearance has not. Numerous fires, notably in 1512 and 1834, have seen to that (we also seem to remember a flying saucer taking a chunk out of Big Ben).

The current building is the third Palace of Westminster. After the 1834 fire, a competition to design a replacement was won by Charles Barry (exterior), and Augustus Pugin (interior). Whilst Barry was the more well known at the time, it is Pugin's name and designs that have since become more renowned.

The new palace cost £2 million, has 1500 rooms, 3 miles of corridor, 40 lifts, 100 stairways and over 3000 workers. The main building has four levels, split into three distinct and colour-coded sections: gold for royalty, red for Lords, and green for Commons (see our handy little map). Many of the surrounding buildings are also part of The Parliamentary Estate, most famously, Portcullis House. This building, to the North, is a complete contrast to the gothic style of the Palace, being a modern, light, airy building. Many MPs, including those of the Shadow Cabinet, have chosen to have their offices in Portcullis House, rather than the Palace itself.

When Londonist came to visit, we were taken around the traditional line of route, shown numerically on the map:

Norman Porch (1)

Who he? Not a person, but a room. This grand portal welcomes the Queen when she arrives for the state opening of parliament. When originally built it was intended to house the busts of Norman monarchs, hence the name. However, the cash ran out, and the room now contains the busts of 16 former Prime Ministers who have sat in the House of Lords. Stained glass windows by Pugin depict a young Queen Vic and Edward the Confessor (now there’s a Royal scandal).

The Royal Robing Room (2)

Widely viewed as the Palace’s most elegant room, this is where the Queen enrobes before state opening. A kind of extremely upmarket changing room. It was also used as the main sitting chamber of the House of Lords when the Commons moved into the normal Lords’ Chamber during the Blitz.

The Admission of St Tristram to the Fellowship of the Round Table dominates the room and indeed images of King Arthur and his Knights are everywhere. As are raucous school children, who seemed to accumulate in this room more than any other on our visit. Perhaps they were looking for the world’s first ever flushing toilet, designed by a certain Thomas Crapper, which is hidden behind a panel in the wall.

And there’s another connection with children here. The room is also a monument to the families of the chief architects: Barry’s son designed the magnificent fireplace and Pugin’s son-in-law provided the stained glass.

Paintings depict the true virtues of chivalry. Originally, there were meant to be seven although the artist died after he finished the 5th, so the other two areas are now filled with portraits of Queen Victoria (again!) and Prince Albert. The marquetry on the floor contains all of the different woods that are native to the UK.

The Royal Gallery (3)

This is the second largest room in the palace, beaten only by Westminster Hall, and is probably the largest sitting room that you will ever see!

Margaret Thatcher once invited (then) President Reagan to address both Houses in Westminster Hall; a great and rare honour. However, the Commons rejected the invitation, as a gentle reminder to Maggie that this is a gift only the Commons can give, NOT the Prime Minister. Reagan spoke here, in the Royal Gallery, instead. (Rumour has it that he wasn't too put out as he was just happy to be with Thatcher, his ‘best man in Engerland’ - an early sign of impending Alzheimer's perhaps.)

Portraits and statues of various kings and queens adorn the room. Charles I’s original death warrant is on display, along with, incongruously, some of Einstein’s letters.

Frescos by Daniel Maclise on each side depict battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar. They took several years each to complete and nearly drove the artist mad. An example of the uniform of every regiment that fought in the battles can be seen. When Charles De Gaulle addressed both Houses, curtains were hung over the paintings, completely covering them, so as not to offend him. Legend has it that he later wondered at the size of the windows in the gallery and was even more perplexed that the curtains remained closed.

Prince's Chamber (4)

This exists for no reason other than as a legacy from the old Palace. It is decorated with portraits and reliefs of Tudor and Stuart monarchs, with a pronounced Tudor theme in the decoration. In fact the only non-Tudor item is a statue of a young Queen Victoria (she gets everywhere in this place) flanked by personifications of Justice and Mercy. When the statue was originally commissioned, Victoria was sat on the same level as Justice and Mercy. When she saw it, the queen decided that she was the greater, and so a plinth was commissioned, bringing her head higher than those of Justice and Mercy.

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House of Lords (5)

The House of Lords only has seats for 350 of the 700 peers. The throne is covered in gold leaf and is divided into three distinct parts: the Queen and Prince Phillip sit in the middle, flanked by Prince Charles and Princess Anne on either side. Minor Royals and Bishops may sit on the steps leading up to the throne. The Lords' area of the Palace of Westminster is both larger and more ornate than the Commons end, with red furnishings, much gold leaf and brass work. We found ourselves walking in a Pugin wonderland.

Here, the queen reads out her annual speech at the opening of parliament. Despite her good breeding she's not averse at having things put in her mouth and that speech is actually written by the Prime Minister. It sets out the ruling party’s policies for the next session of Parliament. The public gallery extends around the chamber. A low, red curtain borders the gallery. This was installed in the 1960s to protect the modesty of miniskirt-wearing ladies (forcing the Lords to take their brownies down to the tube to begin the still honoured tradition of the up-skirt-escalator shot).

The dangling microphones and loudspeakers in the backs of the chairs were installed in the 1960s, and are essential for elderly Lords to be able to hear proceedings, and indeed to speak loudly enough to be heard from one end of the chamber to the other. There's a slight optical illusion at play here as they seem to shift in and out of sight and, rather than looking out of place, the Terry Gilliamesque technology actually adds to the bizarre tone of the place.

The Lord Chancellor sits on the ‘woolsack’ (literally a sack of wool, Britain's largest export in the 19th Century, and a sign of its trading power - an upgrade would mean him sitting on the 'Beckhamsack', not a reform that we back for obvious reasons of taste). He performs similar duties to those of the speaker in the House of Commons.

Government peers sit on the right, opposition peers on the left. There are also benches in the middle, known as 'crossbenches', where Lords with no party allegiance sit.

The Statues around the chamber represent the sixteen earls who forced the King to sign Magna Carta in 1215.

The Bar of the House is the furthest into the House of Lords that any non-peer can go. It is also the area into which MPs cram (all 646 of them) in order to hear the Queen’s speech. We passed beyond the bar and through the Lords’ Lobby (6), to reach the Central Lobby.

There is a straight line of sight between the Commons and the Lords. When all the doors are opened the Speaker in the Commons can see right through to the throne and the woolsack in the House of Lords. This is a design feature to show the idea of unity between the Monarchy, Lords and Commons, and to show that all three are of equal importance.

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Central Lobby (7)

This is the heart of the Palace, where everything comes together. It is every British citizen’s right to walk in off the street and demand to see their MP (if he or she isn't sporting a leotard on Channel Four, that is). This is known as Lobbying, a phrase derived from the location in which you meet your MP, the central lobby. The space also contains a working post office, which is open to all members of the public (Londonist encourages you to go through security with the excuse "I'm going to the post office to buy some stamps" and see how far you get.)

The lobby is adorned with marble statues of famous statesmen of the 19th century, including Gladstone. The four patron saints of the United Kingdom are also displayed here in the form of four mosaics. The symmetry of the centre of the building (a very Pugin-esque idea) is about the point in the middle of this room. This is also where you’ll find Nick Robinson and other reporters during news broadcasts.

Members' Lobby (8)

The House of Commons Members' Lobby is where MPs congregate before a debate. It is adorned with statues and busts of great statesmen. Churchill and David Lloyd George are the most prominent, situated by the entrance to the House of Commons chamber. The bronze of Churchill's foot has become very polished due to the custom of touching it before a debate for good luck. With the rise of the Liberal Democrats, the same has started to happen to Lloyd George’s foot. You can also see the pigeonholes used by the MPs for internal mail. Say what you like about George Galloway bringing politics into disrepute, but it was HIS name that had the schoolchildren excited as they ran their fingers across the names. Blair and Brown, in contrast failed, to raise a murmur.

Busts of all the deceased Prime Ministers of the 20th Century can also be found in this room. If only we’d known during our recent stalk.

Division Lobby

There are two division lobbies in the House of Commons. The ‘No’ lobby on the right, and the ‘Aye’ or yes lobby on the left. All the furniture in the lobbies was donated by Commonwealth countries. The furniture in the No lobby, for example, comes from Uganda

When a division in the House is called, MPs file into the lobbies according to how they want to vote. The division bell rings throughout the entire building and throughout many buildings in the Westminster vicinity, including popular pubs and bars frequented by MPs. They have 8 minutes to get to the lobby before the doors are locked. They then walk through the lobby, and between the clerk’s desks. A division normally takes around 15 minutes, but the record is 9 minutes (when England were playing in the World Cup). After the desks, MPs must bow their heads to the tellers to prove their identity. (It was common in the early 20th Century for MPs to send their assistants in disguise.)

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House of Commons (9)

A couple of us had actually been into the House of Commons before - sort of - although that House had had a couple of rows missing being only a mock-up built for television drama and part of the Manchester Granada Studios tour. There you got to sit in the seats and heckle the opposition tourists across the way before having your photo taken next to a fake Number Ten. Perfect for Northerners not wanting to give up cheap beer and gravy in return for a glimpse of the real thing. Faced now with the actual House of Commons, a sense of unreality again crept in as security guards kept a watchful eye on anyone tempted to take Blair's seat or even touch the spot where the Iron Lady's arse was not for turning.

The recently installed bullet-proof/bomb-proof/idiot-proof security screen above would have been invisible were it not for the jarringly out of place metal supports rammed into the roof. A necessary evil perhaps to protect our elected members from purple flour and worse, but also sad to see. Elsewhere in the Palace are other smaller and less intrusive signs of civil disobedience, but you need a keen eye to spot them. (Look out for the statue of the Second Earl of Falkland and take note that the tip of his sword is cracked. Back in the day, a suffragette handcuffed herself to that very spot only for an overzealous policeman to pull her and the tip of the blade free.)

Our spirits were lifted somewhat when an unnamed insider told us that the books covering the desk that separates the government from the opposition concealed a hidden piece of graffiti. A phrase that would be better suited on a school desk than this huge imposing gift of Canadian wood, but which offers a window into the mentality of British politics: ‘Tony Blair is a cunt‘. As we left, still under the close eye of the security guards, it would be hard to imagine a member of the public getting away with such an act of vandalism and we couldn't help but wonder which of Tony's cabinet carried a penknife.

The Chamber is rather plain compared with that of the Lords. In large part, this is the fault of the Germans. Not a reference to the Windsors (no monarch has been allowed in this room since Charles I), but a rather good shot by the Luftwaffe over 60 years ago. The chamber was rebuilt after the war by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the man behind Battersea Power Station, the red phone box, the Tate modern, etc. etc. (We really must get round to stalking him one of these days.) A blackened, fire-damaged arch remains in the Members’ Lobby, as a reminder of that fateful evening during WWII.

Looking towards House of Lords, the Opposition sit on the left and the Government benches are on the right. The Liberal Democrats and other parties are located on the opposition side on the section of benches nearest the House of Lords, and everybody else is behind them (including…sometimes…George Galloway, who sits in the corner, facing the wall, with a Dunce cap on).

Up above the Speakers Chair is the press gallery. The press are not allowed to use modern technology, and so must rely on their pen, paper and shorthand skills. The Hansard recorders (Hansard is the 'minutes' of the Commons, recording all happenings) also sit in there with their shorthand machines. As soon as the debates for that day have ended, the machines are taken away to the publishers. Overnight, the debates are collated and printed, to be on every MP’s desk the next morning. MPs have 24 hours to amend Hansard before it becomes a permanent record of events.

The cameras and the sound system were installed in the 1960s. It is now possible for the public to watch proceedings on digital television on the BBC Parliament channel, which is almost as popular as QVC.

The two red lines that run along the length of the chamber are called Sword Lines. When members still commonly carried swords there was a danger of a debate becoming over-heated and developing into a mass sword fight. To counter this threat, these two lines were installed. They are two swords lengths and a foot apart. Any MP who speaks must do so from behind these lines. This prevents an MP from lunging across the chamber to take his opposition out. Nowadays, MPs don’t carry swords, but sword racks still remain in the Members’ Cloakroom, now used mostly for umbrellas and perhaps spare walking sticks for the more infirm backbenchers.

The White Line that can be seen going across the throat of the chamber is the Bar of the House. Similar to the equivalent in the House of Lords, it is as far as any non-MP can go while the House is in session.

The Sergeant at Arms or one of his deputies sits in on all debates. The Sergeant is responsible for security matters within the House of Commons and makes sure that MPs abide by the strict rules of the House. He is the only person allowed to carry a sword, a sign of his disciplinary role, although it is only used for ceremonial purposes and perhaps opening the mail. The position and effectiveness of the Sergeant at Arms was recently questioned when the pro-foxhunt demonstrators, led by Brian Ferry's son Otis, broke into the house. There is now room off-camera for an armed police officer to keep an eye on proceedings, so if you think your own Fathers4Justice style campaign could do with a shot in the arm think again unless you want to end up looking like a George Romero extra. That would liven things up on the Parliament channel though.

St Stephens Chapel (10)

This is no longer a chapel. It is now only a rather elaborate corridor forming the public entrance into Central Lobby. The Gold Studs in the floor are where the original speaker's chair and clerks' table of the Commons were situated (in the first Palace). Stained glass windows show every constituency in Britain.

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Westminster Hall (11)

Westminster Hall is the only original part of the building started in 1099 that survives today. When the monarch still lived in the Palace, Henry VIII used it as a tennis court, and was obviously as free and easy with his lobbing as he was with his wife swapping, as Tudor tennis balls have been found in the rafters ever since. The only PM ever to be assassinated (so far) was shot here - Spencer Percieval was killed on the steps with a musket in 1812. Quality name, Spencer.

Several historic events have been held in here, from the trial and impeachment of the Earl of Strafford (Thomas Wentworth), to the trial of Charles I, Winston Churchill lying in state, and most recently the Queen Mother also lying in state (on a still evening the faint smell of gin and formaldehyde still hangs in the air).

Westminster Hall also houses the Secondary Chamber, confusingly also called Westminster Hall, which runs in conjunction with the main chamber. This gives backbenchers a greater chance of getting their views on the record.

The Hall also acts as a place where visiting statesmen can give a speech to both houses and is thought to be much more prestigious than the Royal Robing Room. Most recently, Nelson Mandela addressed both Houses here.

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Behind the Scenes

Our official tour over, we were treated to the sights, sounds and, yes, even the smells that your common-or-garden tourist doesn’t get to see. First of all came the fag area, sensibly kept outdoors for fear of a third devastating fire. A new glass canopy has been installed here at great expense and minimal expertise. Anyone over six foot is liable to crack their head on the low supports.

The canteen offered heavily subsidised meals with huge variety. We half-inched an embossed serviette or two as keepsakes. (There really was no end to our starry-eyed souvenir accumulation, by the way. During the rest of the day, we got our paws on parliamentary magazines, post-it notes and acknowledgement slips. We even withdrew cash from the Palace ATMs, just so we could make our bank statements look impressive for a change.)

Perhaps the greatest privilege was a cheeky few minutes on the Thameside terrace. We weren’t supposed to be here, but the security were rather nice about it all, until we tried taking photos.

After a brief visit to the office area, we took a magic tunnel over to Portcullis House, in all its greenhouse glory (pictured). The highlight here was the many paintings of modern parliamentarians in a riot of clashing styles. We particularly liked the triptych of Blair, Kennedy and Hague, each panel of which was painted to a width proportional to each leader’s number of seats.

We finished the day in a somewhat threadbare bar overlooking Parliament Square. It felt like an old out-of-favour country hotel bar, in need of redecoration. Still, the ale was splendid and the price was right.

You Can Come Too

To go on a free tour yourself, and see what your representatives in parliament get up to, contact your MP through parliament's website to arrange a tour. Alternatively, you can pay for a professional tour during the summer recess. In addition, the public may watch Commons debates for free. Apply in advance for tickets, or join the usually lengthy queue at St Stephen’s entrance.

Images of the interior are reproduced under Parliamentary copyright. (Except for the shot of Portcullis House, which is our own stealthy addition.) Oh, and the map is Copyright to us as well, so don't go nicking it!

Last Updated 02 February 2006