You’ve seen him dozens of times in the House of Commons, leaning on his despatch box, and you can get pretty close to standing there too! This all arose when we were invited to the Houses of Parliament by Exeter University’s chancellor Floella Benjamin. And on Guy Fawkes night!!
Where am I talking about? The Houses of Parliament (the ‘House of Commons’ and House of Lords’) sit inside the Palace of Westminster building, which itself sits alongside the River Thames in London. Its exterior having been photographed millions of times together with “Big Ben” on its northern flank.
So what’s it like to actually go there? Well whether it be for an organised charity event like ours, via an invite from your MP, or on a “paid for” tour you arrive at the opposite end to Big Ben at the ‘Black Rod’s Garden entrance’ and then 20 yards further along enter the building itself. 4-5 security guards welcome you as you proceed through one of two x-ray machines. All very procedural – just like an airport – but friendly nonetheless. On this occasion we headed diagionally across a courtyard towards The Cholmondeley Room and onto the terrace overlooking The River Thames. You can also attend Parliament if you write to your MP. Check out these posts to find out more about attending Prime Minister’s Questions and separately visiting the top of Big Ben!
On this romantically-lit terrace you are able to look straight down into the murky water of The Thames and then back over towards the London Eye which looms behind Westminster Bridge – a view not normally accessable by the public. Even though you’re right in the centre of London you feel safe and secure, protected by the river from all the hustle and bustle just minutes away.
The first part of our tour warmed up by visting The Central Lobby, an octangonal shaped area equidistant between the House of Lords and House of Common. As you might guess from its name it’s in the centre of the Palace of Westminster.
Next stop The House of Lords. This room has a grandiose interior with armorial bearings running beneath the side of the galleries and gets far less exposure in the media than the more televised ‘House of Commons’. You can’t simply “walk about” so our guide spoke to us just a few metres inside the entrance. The red benches are very striking.
Back through the The Central Lobby you see The Members’ Lobby which is adjacent to the House of Commons. It’s not the biggest of areas and suffered bomb damage during WW2. Look up at the missing parts of the arch which was allowed to remain incomplete to serve as a reminder. The lobby also contains pigeon holes with the MPs’ names on. Remember the name of your MP before you get there. I forgot mine. The foreboding statue of Churchill has a worn left foot due to MPs rubbing it as they walk past. Also worth noticing is the “human” damage to one of the doors leading into the Commons Chamber, just beneath the grille due to the ‘Gentlemen Usher of the Black Rod’ knocking it with his rod over the years the traditional three times.
Much like the Centre Court at Wimbledon the inside of the House of Commons is much smaller than when you see it on the TV. You see where the speaker sits on a raised armchair and by looking up, the public gallery, now behind security glass. Keep looking up and you appreciate the sheer amount of wood on show, a view you don’t see in the media as they tend to look “down” onto the MPs instead. We stood on the opposition’s benches to listen to our guide’s talk but asked to stand on the other side so we could experience being “in power” too. A few of us even walked behind David Cameron’s despatch box so we could stand in the same spot as the the most powerful man in the UK!
As the tour comes to an end you wander around the compatitively cool and empty feeling Westminster Hall which is where deceased monarchs traditionally “lie-in-state” … before being commemorated by tablets on the floor. The most recent is that of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who died on 30 March 2002 so check that out before you leave.
We were part of an organised event but there are various ways of visiting. Although remember to visit the shop first as that closes at 8pm and your tour might finish a bit later than that.