Results 1-10of 11 Reviews
Rotherham, United Kingdom
August 8, 2012
From journal London Calling
April 25, 2012
From journal London Layover
September 5, 2011
From journal Big Ben, Parliament,the old gardens of the Convent of Westminster
September 2, 2011
April 22, 2008
From journal London, Free and Easy
Ayr, Scotland, United Kingdom
October 7, 2004
During the summer months, the Houses of Parliament are open to visitors. Being curious about this place that frequently appears on my TV screen and wondering how my Member of Parliament (MP) spent his time, I was there to see for myself.
At Westminster alongside the River Thames, there has been a royal palace for nearly 1,000 years. However, because of a fire in 1834, most of the present buildings dates from the mid-19th-century and are built in the perpendicular gothic style. One of the oldest parts, Westminster Hall, dates from 1097. Its main feature is its massive hammer beam roof with its carved angels. For many years, the Royal Courts of Justice met in the Hall and the trials of Guy Fawkes, of gunpowder fame; King Charles I; and William Wallace (Brave Heart) took place here - all were executed.
The hub of the Palace of Westminster is the Central Lobby where people come to lobby their MPs. Archways lead of to the House of Lords and the House of Commons, their galleries, and the Lower Waiting Hall. The vast octagon of the Central Lobby is rich in symbolism. Its vaulted stone roof is decorated with mosaics. Designs include the English Rose, the Scottish Thistle, the Welsh Harp, and the Portcullis - emblem of Parliament. Over the four archways are panels depicting the patron saints, St. George for England, St. David for Wales, St. Andrew for Scotland, and St. Patrick for Ireland. Four large statues of 19th-century statesmen gaze upon proceedings and ponder.
The United Kingdom parliament has developed over hundreds of years from the group of nobles that once advised the King to the present-day Parliament of the Monarch, House of Lords, and House of Commons. Parliament has taken over many of the powers previously exercised by the Monarch, but the Queen still has formal duties governed by convention.
The Palace’s three areas reflect the three parts of Parliament: the Royal Apartments, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. MPs hold most of their debates in the House of Commons Chamber. The House of Commons was rebuilt after World War II due to bomb damage. Its style is simplified gothic in light coloured oak. Members sit on rows of benches down each side. The Speaker, who controls proceedings, has a raised chair at one end.
Winston Churchill had the strange idea that the number of seats in the rebuilt Chamber should be less than the number of members to make it appear busier than it is. Certainly the smallness of the Chamber surprised me for it seems much larger when viewed on TV. Because every "bottom" doesn’t have a seat, modern push button voting is impossible. Instead, the members file out into the "Ayes" lobby and the "No" lobby. In fact, the system works well and there is no hiding the way MPs vote. A warning bell sounds in those areas where MPs might be when a vote is due. This includes two nearby pubs - says it all!
The House of Lords resembles the House of Commons, but is richer in tone. The Lords first occupied the chamber in 1857. The Builder magazine enthused that "the whole glitters with colours and gilding – carvings in stone, stained glass, encaustic tiles, and fine work in metal." Here the benches are in red while in the Commons they are green. At one end of the Chamber is the Throne from which the Queen opens each session of parliament.
The House of Commons has 659 MPs who each represent a geographical part of the country called a constituency. The House of Lords has around 700 Members, mostly appointed for life by the Prime Minister (life peers), for their knowledge and experience in a particular field.
Parliament checks that the government is running the country properly and approves new laws before they come into force. The Queen asks the leader of the political party with the most MPs in the House of Commons to become Prime Minister and form a government to manage the country. As the last election Tony Blair of the Labour Party received the request. The leader of the next largest party becomes the leader of the opposition.
Interestingly, the two sides of the chamber are exactly two swords apart. A necessary precaution in the early days for members routinely wore swords. In many ways, expert use of a tongue can be more wounding than a rapier thrust and Tony Blair’s defense seems to be never to answer the question put to him by Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative opposition, but merely to point to the record of the Conservatives when in power – apparently it was worse?
From journal A Royal Tour of London
June 30, 2003
William the Conqueror, having established his first stronghold at the Tower of London (see my separate entry under "A Londoner's Hometown Top Ten"), later moved it to Westminster. His son, William Rufus, commissioned the founding of the first buildings on the site at the end of the 11th century - including Westminster Hall (which celebrated 900 years of continuous use in 1999). Westminster Hall was designed originally as a place for feasting and entertaining but came quickly to be used to host the Royal Council of bishops, nobles and ministers, a Council which came later to be known as what has now become the Parliament which meet today, still at Westminster. It's amazing to think that it was the existence of the Hall that served to make Westminster the judicial and administrative centre of the kingdom, albeit in the Palace rather than the Hall.
The Palace was one of the king's homes in London - remaining still, as well as Westminster Hall, is part of the royal chapel of St Stephen. Split into two sections, kings worshipped in the upper Chapel (now destroyed by fire) and their courtiers in the lower level or "crypt" chapel below. Whereas, in medieval times, courts followed kings wherever they went and had no firm meeting place, by the mid-1300s, everything had centralised in Westminster; Westminster Hall housed shops and stalls selling wigs, pens and other legal equipment since the law courts met here -- Thomas More, those accused of trying to blow up Parliament (in the 1605 "Gunpowder Plot") and Charles I (see my separate entry above on the Banqueting Hall where he was executed) were all tried in the Hall.
Following a fire in 1512, Henry VIII decided to abandon the Palace and thus it became home to the two seats of parliament -- the Commons and the Lords. The Palace saw some up and downs -- including a conspiracy to destroy it and parliament by explosion in the Gunpowder Plot -- but it was in fact another fire which brought more of a downfall in 1834 : everything was lost except Westminster Hall, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel, the adjacent cloisters and the Jewel Tower. Looking on the bright side, a competition was launched to redevelop the whole site and Sir Charles Barry, and his assistant, Augustus Pugin, designed the spiky, marvellous mock gothic building so familiar today including the clock tower that houses Big Ben, the bell that chimes on the hour, and is home to the largest clock face in the country. (That's why Big Ben is not the name of the tower but of the bell!). There is so much to say about the clocktower that I have included a separate entry below... The present Houses of Parliament were built over the next 30 years, incorporating Westminster Hall and the remains of St Stephen's Chapel. Most recently, the House of Commons Chamber was destroyed in a German air attack in 1941 and rebuilt after the war (completed in 1950).
You can watch debates when parliament is in session and don't need tickets in advance but may have to queue. To see Tony Blair appearing at Prime Minister's Question Time, you'll need to get tickets in advance from a member of parliament (if you're a British citizen) or from your consulate or High Commission. (You can get more information from the Public Information Office on 020 7219 3000).
Westminster Hall is used for major public ceremonies such as the presentation of "Addresses" (by foreign dignitaries etc) to Elizabeth II on her Silver Jubilee in 1977, to mark 50 years since the end of WWII and 50 years of the UN in 1995, the opening of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in 1986, the Inter-Parliamentary Union's Centenary Conference in 1989. At such ceremonies (of which photos are sometimes exhibited in the Hall), the Hall is lit up and garlanded with flowers and hangings. The Hall is also sometimes used as a room for dignitaries to make addresses, as the then-President, Nelson Mandela, did in 1996.
The Hall is also site for lyings in state of monarchs, consorts, and occasionally very distinguished statesmen. The first such was under Queen Victoria when her Prime Minister, William Gladstone, was laid for people to attend and pay their respects in 1898; King George VI in 1952, Queen Mary in 1953 and Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 have all lain in state here. Most recently, in April 2002, several hundred thousand people queued for more from Southwark Cathedral along the southbank to Vauxhall and across Vauxhall Bridge and back to Westminster, to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, as she lay in state in the Hall.
Guided tours of the House of Lords and Commons and Westminster Hall take place generally in August and September (all days save Sun). Entrance by 75 min tour : £7 adults/£3.50 concessions (French/German/
Spanish/Italian : £9/£5.50.
The route for the guided tour starts at the Sovereign's Entrance (ie where the Queen enters when she goes to open each session of parliament annually in September/October), via Queen's Robing Room, Royal Gallery, Prince's Chamber, House of Lords Chamber (with green leather seats, Peers' Lobby and Corridor, Central Lobby, Commons Corridor and "No" lobby, House of Commons Chamber (with red leather seats), St Stephen's Hall, the glorious Westminster Hall, New Palace Yard. Public entrance to the Palace is through St Stephen's entrance in Old Palace Yard. Enquiries: 020 7344 9966.
As well as wandering down Whitehall, I'd also recommend taking a boat trip so you can see the Palace from the water -- it's a completely different perspective from outside the gates or even inside on the tour (particularly in the evening with the soft sun on the prickly spikes of the building). Oh, and you get a great close view (and photos) of the clockface from the Eye.
The only other surviving section of the Palace of Westminster, the moated Jewel Tower, was constructed around 1365 to house the treasures and wardrobe of King Edward III. As well as housing an exhibition about the workings of parliament (called "Parliament Past and Present"), there's also a snazzy touch-screen computer which allows you a virtual tour of both Houses of Parliament. Very handy if the actual tours are full or not running -- open daily 10am-6pm (Apr-Sep) 10am-5pm (Oct) 10am-4pm (Nov-Mar). Closed 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan. Entrance: Adult £1.60/concessions £1.20/child £0.80.
From journal Ambling around London pt 2 – A wander along Whitehall
London, United Kingdom
April 8, 2002
From journal Government, Greenery and Glory - Public London
October 19, 2001
We ordered tickets online, and they were mailed to us well in advance of our visit. We had to check in 15 minutes early, and we were split into groups of 16 to 18 people. We were then assigned a guide--in our case, Kate--and we went in one group at a time. Security was high--we were patted down, went through a metal detector, and our bags were searched.
We were shown the Sovereign's entrance, but we got to go in a trade entrance. We walked up the Royal Stairs--the queen takes the lift up these days. At the top of the stairs, there was a beautiful stained-glass window of Edward the Confessor.
The Houses of Parliament were largely destroyed by a fire in 1834. They were rebuilt in a high Gothic style. We toured into the robing room where the queen changes into her robes for the opening of Parliament. Prince Charles and Prince Philip get to use a smaller room. This room is beautiful, all maroon and gold. It has Arturian Friezes around the upper walls, extolling the values of chivalry.
The royal gallery has portraits and statues of the monarchs. There is also an interesting model of the former palace of Westminster. There are cases here with important documents, one of which is the signed death warrant of King Charles I.
Next, we went through the Houses of Lords, and Kate explained the makeup of the House, Lords Spiritual, Lord Temporal, and Life Peers. Then we got to do what the Queen can never do: we walked from the House of Lords to the House of Commons (the monarch is not welcome in the House of Commons). Charles I was the last monarch in the House of Commons, and he tried to force his way in.
We picked up some interesting trivia here. There are lines on the floor in the House of Commons. The terms "Don't Cross the Line" and "Tow the Line" had their birth in this room. The lines are to keep the two parties apart. We got to announce ourselves as we entered the House, just as the members do when the bell calling them is rung.
Our last stop was Westminster Hall, the largest remaining portion of the old palace. It has a beautiful 15th-century hammered roof. This was also the only room we were allowed to photograph. This is the room where William Wallace was condemned and Charles I sat where we stood. Monarchs have also laid in state in this room.
This was an amazing experience. If you get the chance, do it. It's a wonderful lesson in the British system of government.
From journal London- Its a Love Affair
October 6, 2001
From journal London and Vicinity