The Palace of Westminster – home to the Houses of Parliament – has been a royal palace for 1000 years, home to the Parliament for nearly 500 years, is one of London’s best-known buildings, and forms the backdrop to so many images of the capital.
Most people will recognise its striking façade, but far less know what actually happens inside. In fact it is a bit of a mystery. The complex rituals of the British political system are enough to confuse anyone, never mind someone who hasn’t grown up in this country.
Now I am going to let you in on a secret. My grandad, Bruce Millan, was a Scottish Labour politician, European Commissionaire and Secretary of State of Scotland. He, therefore, spent a good chunk of his life in the Houses of Parliament and my stepdad has visited the building on many occasions.
Seeing the interior of the Houses of Parliament for myself has therefore unsurprisingly long been on my to-do list. Somehow I was convinced that it would bring me a little closer to my grandad, who sadly passed away three years ago.
You can probably imagine how excited I thus was to be invited to try out the new self-guided audio tour and why I took up the offer without a moment’s hesitation.
HOW TO VISIT THE HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT
There are in fact three ways to take a sneak-peak inside the Houses of Parliament.
- You can stand as an MP and get 50,000 people to vote for you at the next general election. Granted, this is a bit too much hassle, for most people.
- If you’re a UK resident you can contact your local MP or a member of the House of Lords and ask them to give you a tour, free of charge, also known as a Member’s Tour. I assume that there’s a long waiting list for those though.
- Tourists can simply buy a ticket for an audio or guided tour. MPs generally don’t work on weekends and so the Houses of Parliament are open to the public every Saturday. You can buy your tickets online or get them the same day from the ticket office at the front of Portcullis House. Tickets sell out fast and there are a few exceptions to the opening times, so it’s probably best to check the schedule and purchase your tickets in advance. Once you buy tickets (£18.50 for adults), you have the option of printing them out. If you do, you’ll get a nice little map right on your ticket that will tell you which entrance to go to.
To be honest, I had no idea that you could just buy a ticket for a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. But I am glad you can. Gary and I went on a self-guided audio tour one Saturday afternoon, and it was brilliant. This is a really fun thing to do on a free weekend and we would highly recommend it.
If you are looking for other free things to do in your spare time, check out this very comprehensive list of London museums.
ENTRANCE AND SECURITY
The entrance to the Houses of Parliament is at the Cromwell Green Visitor Entrance. Here you will be asked to show your tickets to a police officer and to confirm that you don’t have any weapons or bombs on you. Tours are timed so you need to make sure to get there in time to get through the airport-style security process. Fully scanned and searched, we were handed security badges and sent on to the courtyard below Big Ben. Note that Big Ben is actually the name of the clock tower bell – the official name for the clock tower itself is the Elizabeth Tower. We continued on into the medieval Westminster Hall to collect our audio guides and start the tour.
The cavernous Westminster Hall – dating back to 1097 – is the oldest part and one of the few original parts of the Palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower are the only parts of the palace which survived a huge fire in 1834. A lucky change of wind direction saved the Hall, but the original Houses of Parliament had to be rebuilt in their current Victorian neo-Gothic style. Westminster Hall was completed in 1099 and was designed to impress. It was a place for feasts, entertainment and great state occasions. The Hall has played many different roles over the course of history. It was first built as a courtroom where famous names like Guy Fawkes and William Wallace were tried. Then it was used for lavish coronation banquets for new monarchs. It’s one of the largest undivided medieval spaces in the world, topped with a hammer-beam roof, and is still the back-drop for important ceremonial events and used for important visitors like Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Remember to check out the plaques on the floor that mark famous historic events, such as the trial of Thomas More and Charles I. I had chills run down my spine as I hovered above the spot where Nelson Mandela stood to address both Houses of Parliament in 1996. Apart from Stephen’s Hall, Westminster Hall is the only place where you are allowed to take photos.
ST STEPHENS HALL
From Westminster Hall the audio tour continues into Stephen’s Hall. After the 1834 fire, architect Charles Barry won the competition to redesign the Houses of Parliament, whilst Augustus Pugin designed the interior. The Houses of Parliament were rebuilt in their current splendid neo-gothic style and inspired by medieval art. The Palace of Westminster is the largest neo-gothic building in the world and is covered in symbolic details, both inside and out. St Stephen’s Hall is stunning, with its painted walls and many statues. I was so glad we were able to take at least a couple of photos in here.
THE CENTRAL LOBBY ROOM
The tour then goes on to Central Lobby. This hall is the crossroads between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. If all the doors are left open you can see all the way from the Royal Throne at one end to the Speaker’s Chair at the other. It is an octagonal room that links four hallways in total. Above each archway are mosaics of the patron saints of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The roof is said to be the widest stone-vaulted roof in existence and its interior features many symbolic carvings and mosaics. The Central Lobby is often featured in political news stories. It is where all interviews are held and where the public can come and “lobby” (request to see) their local Member of Parliament. If you present yourself at the desk then your local MP is duty bound to speak to you, as long as your reasons is genuine of course. The House of Lords and the House of Commons are accessed from opposite sides of the lobby.
THE QUEEN’S ROBING ROOM
As the tour moves further through the building it follows the route the Queen usually takes when she visits for the State Opening of Parliament. After entering the Houses of Parliament through the ‘Sovereign’s Entrance’, shed heads to the Queen’s Robing Room, where she puts on her crown and cloak. The Queen’s Robing Room is decorated with paintings of Arthurian legends and features a grand throne of gold and purple. This throne was designed by Queen Victoria and comes with a special footstool. Did you know that Queen Victoria was less than five-foot tall. The footstool thus stopped her feet from dangling off the floor!
THE ROYAL GALLERY
The Royal Gallery is a magnificent room between the Lord’s Chamber and the Robing Room. This is one of the longest rooms in the Palace, decorated in red and gold, Palace and with two very large frescoes on each wall showing great British military victories. One depicts Nelson’s moment of triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar (at the exact same moment he got shot), whilst the other shows the Duke of Wellington’s meeting with Marshal Blucher at the Battle of Waterloo. Though in the interest of Anglo-French relations there are apparently hooks above the pictures so they can be covered up with curtains when French Heads of State pay a visit! Looking down and around the rest of the walls are portraits of our most modern monarchs, from George I to our very own Queen. The alcove contains an ornate Book of Remembrance for the many peers and their sons who died during WWII. On the floor in front of the book is a rough piece of wood, which came from a jetty used in the D-Day landings. Next to it is a box which is divided into five sections, each of which is full of sand. The sections are labelled Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword: the names of the D-Day landing beaches.
THE PRINCES CHAMBER
The next room in the tour is the Prince’s Chamber, an anteroom where the Lords can meet to discuss business. The walls are covered with paintings of 28 Tudor monarchs – including Henry VIII and all of his wives. There is also a series of paintings about the Spanish Armada.
THE HOUSE OF LORDS
Then it’s on into the House of Lords, one of the most lavishly decorated parts of the building, full of deep golds and bright reds. Having seen it so many times on TV, the biggest surprises for me were the beautiful stained glass windows, wood carvings and frescoes above the benches. That and the forest of microphones which hang down to capture every word of the debates. At the front of the room is an ornate throne where the Queen sits, partly made of solid gold. In front of it, the Woolsack – a big red cushion where the Speaker of the House of Lords sits. It gets its odd name from its 14th-century origins, when Edward III decided that his Lord Chancellor should sit on a bale of wool to show how important the wool trade was to the country. It’s still made of wool today, though unfortunately we weren’t allowed to test out how comfortable it is. In fact you are not allowed to sit on any of the benches and there are signs everywhere warning you not to do so. At this point it’s important to mention that this is a very long tour (at least 75 minutes long) and that your feet might indeed get tired.
The Member’s Lobby features some of the best paintings of the Houses of Parliament. Here you will also find very imposing statues of Churchill, Lloyd George, Atlee and Thatcher, as well of smaller busts of all the prime ministers (apart from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown). If you look closer at the entrance arch, you will notice some bomb damage to the stone, dating back to the Second World War.
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
The final room to visit on the tour is the House of Commons. Whilst the public is allowed to visit this space, the Queen, according to tradition, isn’t. What struck me most as I moved from the House of Lords to the House of Commons was how patently different the two rooms were. The House of Lords glows in hues of gold, red, and blue, and is floodlit by ornate stained glass windows. In contrast, the House of Commons is simple and subdued, with green leather benches and a brown carpet. This part of the building was, in fact, completely rebuilt in the 1950s, after having been completely destroyed by bombs during the Blitz. It was built by architect Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed Waterloo Bridge, Battersea Power Station and the red Telephone Box. The room retains its original proportions and is thus deceptively small. This creates a very intense atmosphere during debates. In fact the green benches only seat about two-thirds of the MPs so during busy debates the room is overflowing with people. The Speaker’s chair is at the end of the room, with the Government to their right and the Opposition to their left. I never felt closer to my grandad than in that moment picturing him sitting there, on of the Government’s benches and calmly but passionately getting involved in the heated debates at hand.
THE AUDIO TOUR OF THE HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT
There are two ways to see the interior of the Houses of Parliament, either with a guided tour or with the new self-guided audio tour that was launched earlier this year.
We really enjoyed walking around the Houses of Parliament unaccompanied, whilst everyone else was shepherded around by a tour guide. Audio-Guide in hand it is very easy to avoid big tour groups (that have a tendency to obstruct your view), groups if you don’t mind varying your walking pace a bit.
We made sure to listen to every chapter of the audio-guide (there are a couple of additional ones that you can skip should you so choose) and were impressed by the amount of detail, some of which, I believe, is not included on the guided tour.
It was wonderful learning about some of the processes of Parliament whilst actually standing in the space. I didn’t realise for example that if there is a ‘vote’ in Parliament a bell rings throughout the building (and in certain local pubs). MP’s then have 8 minutes to cast their vote. If they don’t make it, the door is slammed in their face! The audio tour really brought the Houses of Parliament to life.
Opting for the self-guided audio tour also means that you don’t need to worry about standing at the front of the group, in order to hear your guide, nor are you rushed to keep to a schedule. Instead, you can walk through the Houses of parliament at a much more leisurely pace.
The audio guides are easy to use, and there are adult and family versions available, both of which follow the same route. It’s in the style of a live news broadcast, with time travelling reporters reporting on stories associated with the Houses of Parliament, such as Magna Carta in 1215 and the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Both the family and the adult audio tours take about an hour – but you can spend longer if you like, starting and stopping the audio guide as you go along.
From the Commons it’s back to Westminster Hall and the end of the tour. The Palace of Westminster is a fascinating place to visit, and we definitely learnt a huge amount about the history and traditions that lie at the heart of British politics. But having learnt the theory I now want to go back and see it in practice – to experience the Houses of Parliament as they should be, packed full of people with the shouts of politicians heckling each other across the benches. So next time I’ll be joining the queue for the public gallery to see how it’s really done!
I found the tour fascinating and would definitely recommend it. There’s a real sense of living history as you walk around the Palace buildings.
Given its architecture, historical significance, and current significance, I would recommend visiting the Houses of Parliament over the Tower of London and even Windsor Castle. I think there’s more to see at the Houses of Parliament and the building is large enough that you definitely get a ‘castle’ feel when you walk through it. It’s also right smack dab in the centre of London, unlike Windsor. The Tower of London is a little more accessible, but can’t compete with the Houses of Parliament when it comes to its interiors.
The Houses of Parliament are open to the public most Saturdays and selected weekdays during the summer, Easter and Christmas Parliamentary recesses – Visit Parliament have a list of the latest dates.
You can choose between a guided or audio tour, both available in a range of languages. Audio tours take about an hour and cost £18.50 per adult (concessions £16 and free entry for one child under 15 per adult). Guided tours take about 100 minutes and cost £25.50 per adult (concessions £21 and children £11).
If you’re a UK resident you can also arrange a free guided tour via your Member of Parliament, which is the only way you can get up into the Big Ben clocktower too, though you need to book about six months in advance.
Booking and further info: www.parliament.uk/visiting
Note: photography is not allowed on the tour, so some of the images used are Parliamentary copyright and are reproduced with the permission of Parliament under Creative Commons.
Disclaimer: As is common in the travel industry, I was provided with a complimentary tour for the purpose of the review. While it has not influenced this review, I believe in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
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