There’s an undeniable thrill as you arrive at the entrance to the Houses of Parliament. How can there not be, knowing that you’re entering the home of 900 years of history? The Houses of Parliament remains one of my favourite buildings in the UK, its elegance and beauty unrivalled. Try walking past it while the sun is rising or setting and you’ll see what I mean.
The hardest thing about writing a post about such an iconic establishment is knowing where to start. At the beginning of today’s tour, I suppose, is as good a place as any – and with a recommendation to take the guided tour, if you can: headphone tours are also available, but our guide, Tony, was wonderful – knowledgeable and funny – and elevated our visit into something special.
Parliament was in recess, which meant we were able to wander through around a dozen rooms on this gloriously sunny day. It’s difficult to describe how it felt, walking into rooms you’ve seen so often on TV – the House of Commons, Central Lobby and the House of Lords among them – but amidst the feeling of awe, there’s also a feeling of pride that, however frail democracy may sometimes feel, the Houses of Parliament belongs to the people.
We began in Westminster Hall, which is 900 years old and was home to British kings and queens for many decades. Built by William II (Rufus), the son of William the Conqueror, it is located under Victoria Tower – a building wider and taller than Big Ben. Thrillingly, this is where Parliament’s archives are stored: all 500 years of them.
When Westminster Hall was constructed, England’s king was all-powerful. He did take advice, from Advisory Councils comprising noblemen, who supplied the arms for wars, and Bishops. However, by the 13th century this relationship was growing fractious and in 1215 King John imposed punitive taxes which the barons couldn’t afford to pay. This stand-off led to King John signing the Magna Carta, which limited his and future monarchs’ powers.
50 years later, those same Advisory Councils were expanded by elected Council members, as democracy cautiously began to hold. By 1441, the monarch sat alongside a House of Lords (the barons and bishops) and a House of Commons (Members of Parliament, or MPs).
It’s Victoria Tower where the Queen arrives for the State Opening of Parliament, where the Monarch, Lords and MPS come together to hear what Parliament has planned for the coming year. We followed in her footsteps to the Robing Room, where she dons the Imperial State Crown (adorned with 3,000 diamonds) and the red Robe of State. The This room is only 170 years old, due to the fact that much of Parliament’s buildings were destroyed by a horrendous fire in 1834. Notably, it contains a throne built for Queen Victoria, flanked by portraits of her and Albert – and a facsimile of the Magna Carta.
From here, the Queen proceeds to the Royal Gallery, where visiting Heads of State are also welcomed and which is used as a ‘Prep Room’ by the Lords. It’s the paintings of the Battle of Waterloo which catch your eye: this room was originally supposed to celebrate Britain’s military history, which is why the surrounding portraits are of monarchs who reigned at the time of great conflict, including Henry V, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II.
My favourite room of all, however, was the Tudor-themed Ante Room, with its portraits of Henry VIII and all six of his wives. Everywhere you turn you encounter another familiar figure, Mary Queen of Scots and her reprobate husband Darnley, and Mary of Guise among them. Used for the collection of messages, this is where I would spend all my time, were I lucky enough to work here.
And then, you arrive in the House of Lords. If you’re remotely familiar with UK politics, you will understand the shiver that passes down the spine on entering this room. It looks exactly as it does on television – although the TV cameras and hanging microphones are a surprise, as are the stained glass windows, which I’ve never previously noticed.
The history of the House of Lords is delicious. It’s from here that the Queen sends Black Rod to the House of Commons where the doors are slammed shut, to symbolise the Commons’ independence of the Sovereign. Black Rod strikes those doors three times and our MPs follow them to the House of Lords, where as many as possible crowd into the room. The Queen then reads the Speech written for her by the government, usually focused on forthcoming draft laws.
The room is split into two: one side for the Government, and the other for Other Parties (with “cross benchers”, i.e. independents, sitting in between) – all overlooked by statues of the barons and bishops who so greatly influenced King John overseeing proceedings.
The House of Commons is plainer than the House of Lords, and even greener than it appears on TV. We stood (only MPs are allowed to sit down) right by the Prime Minister’s seat, in front of the Table of the House and the famous Dispatch Box. Above us was the Press Gallery, with its far less comfortable wooden benches. The sense of history is palpable, but the most moving aspect of the Commons is the display of shields for MPs who died in the two World Wars – and the shield dedicated to the late Labour MP Jo Cox’s memory, with its simple engraving, “More in common”, encapsulating everything she believed in.
On our way out of Parliament we passed through its Central Lobby, recognisable as the location of many a press interview. Featuring statues of kings and queens of every era, it has the most beautiful ceiling and mosaics – and, more pragmatically, a post box.
And that’s the thing about the Houses of Parliament: it’s a unique blend of ancient versus modern and theoretical versus practical that cannot help but capture the imagination and has left me planning a return visit, keen to find out even more.