Politicians and journalists have a reputation for enjoying a drink from time to time. No surprise, then, to learn that there are more bars around the centre of government than in your typical high street. With a daily population in excess of 10,000 people, many of whom count wining and dining as a job description, the Palace of Westminster needs plenty of refreshment stops. It has around 20 and, uniquely, none of them needs a license to sell alcohol.
To access most of these bars, you need to know someone who works in the estate. 'Passholders' have ready access to many of the bars and cafes around the Palace, and are allowed to take in up to three guests. Be prepared for airport-style security when entering the complex (usually via Portcullis House), but a very relaxed, unquestioning atmosphere once you're inside. You'll also find this a particularly inexpensive pub crawl, with real ales and glasses of wine costing little more than two pounds. Where else could you get a St Paddy's Day Guinness for just £1.50?
Photography is a bit of a no-no within certain parts of the buildings, so excuse our sometimes ropey shots.
Our first stop sits at first-floor level, overlooking the tourist-carpeted corner of Parliament Square and Street. Bellamy's traces its origins back to John Bellamy, an 18th Century Deputy Housekeeper, who set up the first catering facility for the Houses of Parliament in 1773. The establishment, referenced in Dickens' Sketches by Boz, was destroyed by the Westminster fire of 1834, with the current bar co-opting the name when it opened in 1991. Despite a recent refurbishment costing half a million pounds (of our money, Britain, of our money!), the drinking area remains very understated with all the half-charm of a mid-market hotel bar (although the associated dining room looks a little more plush). Its chief attraction is the view across to Westminster Abbey. A former Tory stronghold, Bellamy's now attracts a more mixed clientele, despite serving the seemingly partisan ale of Red Imp (Cathedral Breweries). Get your drinks in quickly, though. The bar will shortly be transformed into a crèche, at further taxpayer expense, unless a Facebook campaign saves it.
The Debate, Portcullis House
While acknowledging it's not everybody's cup of tea, we're rather fond of Portcullis House. From the outside, its obsidian, bechimneyed architecture somehow both contrasts and complements the fine Gothic lines of its more famous neighbour. On the inside, the building is surprisingly airy and light, an atmosphere enhanced by (what we presume are) the controversial fig trees that made headlines a decade ago. At ground floor level three eateries offer their wares to visitors and staff. We picked a spot outside (yet inside) the 'Debate' café-bar (the other two are named the 'Adjournment' and the 'Dispatch Box'), knocking back a refreshing Houses of Parliament Chardonnay and tucking in to a so-so salmon steak on a preposterously large bed of leeks - like a prop from a Welsh cliché factory. For some reason, the Northamptonshire County Council Performing Arts Service were providing a swing-jazz accompaniment from across the other side of the courtyard. It felt a little like dining in a New Orleans shopping mall. In a good way.
House of Lords Bar
Woah...woah. What's going on here? With its whitewashed walls, low, brightly lit ceiling and minimal furnishings, the House of Lords bar dazzles like the spotlit pate of a balding peer. The high wooden tables add to the feeling that you're in an underfunded All Bar One. It's quite at odds with the dusty, fusty old-man's pub we'd expected of the Lords. As with the two previous spaces, the Lords Bar is as much about eating as drinking, offering a cafeteria-style area for hot and cold grub. If you dare, venture out on to the river terrace, which is clearly marked for peers and their guests only. No one challenged us, as we enjoyed a very pleasant pint watching the slowboats glowing on the Thames.
Sports and Social Bar
Of all the drinking dens within the Palace, the Sports and Social feels most like your traditional pub. Comfortable carpet, real ales on tap, dart board... there's even a karaoke night on Thursdays. Unlike your typical boozer, the locals get access to a rifle range and a monthly 'outing'. It's technically a members-only bar, but we've been served without question on both our visits. Whether the nauseous green waistcoats worn by the staff are a regular uniform, or a nod to St Patrick, we're not sure.
St Stephen's Tavern
Our final port of call is almost directly beneath our first. It's also a place you can visit without clearing security. St Stephen's Tavern sports a joyful elegance not normally found in such a tourist hub. The 130-year-old institution had been closed for over 15 years before brewers Hall & Woodhouse, with a little help from English Heritage, financed a spectacular refurb. The pub is now faithfully restored to glory, positively sneezing with decadent adornments and curling wrought iron. Smashing place, this, although the tab came as a bit of a shock after our earlier subsidised encounters.
The Byzantine, Hogwartian complex that is the Palace of Westminster contains plenty of additional options for drinking and dining - if you have the right security clearance. The only place open to unescorted visitors is the Jubilee Cafe in Westminster Hall - more of a food stop, but a deeply impressive place to nibble a scone. The Strangers Bar is somewhat harder to penetrate, being inaccessible to regular cardholders and their guests. It reportedly stocks the best selection of real ales in the estate, and boasts a riverside balcony area much like that from the Lords Bar. The peculiar name refers to the local lingo for visitors to the House of Commons, who are traditionally called 'strangers'. Most exclusive of all is the Members' Tea Room. It is only open to Members of Parliament, Lords who were former Members of Parliament, retired Members of Parliament with over 50 years' service and Officers of the House of Commons. No guests are permitted. Naturally, there's also a press bar. It's named Moncrieff's after long-serving hack Chris Moncrieff. Chris shared the following anecdotes with us:
Moncrieff's Bar must be the only drinking den in the world formally opened by a lifelong teetotaller (the last Speaker Michael Martin) and named after someone (me) who hasn't touched a drop for some 30 years.
In the Stranger's Bar (known as the Kremlin because it was largely peopled by Labour MPs) there was a sign on the wall, three inches from the ground, bearing an arrow and the words "Way Out". When I asked a policeman whether they were expecting a visit by a trouple of dwarfs he said "No. It is to accommodate those who choose to leave the premises on their hands and knees."
Once the press gallery barman got so drunk that he couldn't be bothered to work out the prices, so he charged £3 for everything, whether it was a half-glass of lemonade or a triple scotch. When, with some trepidation he came to cash up in the morning, the takings tallied exactly with the stock sold. Amazing.
Once a pressman became so paralytic in the bar that he was pronounced dead. It was only after they had called for a hearse that the "corpse" surprised everyone by sitting up and requesting: A large gin and tonic, no ice..."