Newest Review: ... motif in the House of Commons is green and red for the House of Lords? Moreover, what is the significance of the portraits (paintings) o... more
The Palace of Westminster
Houses of Parliament (London)
Member Name: dee778
Houses of Parliament (London)
Advantages: Beautiful and interesting
The intimacy that TV coverage has provided means that everybody can recollect a momentous speech, a moment of passion, or a moment of sadness from the famous green leather benches of the House of Commons. Although I feel that I know the House of Commons as well as my own home, I have never had the chance to visit in person until now. The opportunity to accompany a school party gave me the trip of a lifetime.
We started our visit at Portcullis House. Built in 2001, Portcullis House provides offices for about one third of Members of Parliament, and is an interesting piece of architecture in its own right, with its, with its rows of tall chimneys, which are intended to recall the Victorian Gothic design of the Palace of Westminster. As we entered Portcullis house we were faced with a lot of policemen with large guns. Passing through the airport style security checks, we were allowed into the building and taken through an underground passageway into the Palace of Westminster itself. This exciting and rather furtive way of arriving in the building added a frisson of excitement to the whole visit.
As we emerged from the tunnel, we found ourselves in the ancient and very chilly Westminster Hall. The age of this hall overwhelms you; built in 1097 and measuring an enormous73 by 20 metres, it has a beautiful wooden hammer-beam roof (the largest medieval roof in northern Europe). The size of this hall takes your breath away, as you look up to the intricately carved griffins head on the roof above you, or down to the plaques in the floor that remind you of the lying in state that has taken place in the hall. Here we met Megan, our entertaining and informative guide for the tour.
Moving out of Westminster Hall into the Central Lobby, the sense of history really hits you. This lobby is often seen on the news, as a place where reporters interview MPs. It forms the centre of a crossroads; everything to the south leads to the House of Lords, and everything to the north is part of the House of Commons.
The central lobby has a bustling atmosphere as MPs and their aides rush through to meetings. It is a meeting place for Members of both Houses and also a place where MPs can meet their constituents. Once again, the beauty of the structure takes your breath away. The room itself is a stone octagon with an intricately tiled floor and a vaulted ceiling with panels that glitter with intricate mosaic art. Each mosaic panel depicts saints that represent the four parts of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland).
In a corner of the lobby is an incredibly quaint post office; with wrought iron grills and looking as if it has been transplanted directly from a Victorian street, this is for employees only.
~~The House of Lords~~
We were taken down the south corridor to the splendor of the House of Lords, the most lavish and opulent room in the Palace. It was easy to recognise the red leather benches of this house, but I didn't expect the magnificence of the gilt panelled ceiling, the beautiful stained glass windows - all overshadowed by the ornate gilded Royal Throne. We were not allowed to go fully into the Lords, but sat for while on the steps at the end, while our guide reminded us that the Queen only sits on the throne once a year, told us why the Lord Speaker sits on the Woolsack, and named some famous Lords who currently sit in the House as experts in their field.
~~The Members Lobby~~
Walking back through the central lobby into the north side of the building, we found ourselves standing in the members lobby. Here MPs pick up messages and business papers and congregate during the sittings of the House before and after business in the Chamber. This room was very different to the museum-like feel of the Lords. I was very aware of standing in the footsteps of some of the most famous politicians in history as I looked at the MPs pigeon holes and message boards. This had the feel of a working room - where the everyday business is carried out. Full size statues of Churchill, Lloyd George, Atlee and Thatcher loom hugely on pillars around the room. Each of them has their place due to the mark they made on history; Churchill in the war, Atlee for social reform, Thatcher for being the first woman Prime Minister. Churchill's foot is worn away by the tradition of MPs touching it for luck as they enter the House.
In this room, we could see for the first time signs of the bombing during WW2 that devastated the House of Commons. The chipped and broken arch leading into the chamber is known as the Churchill arch, as it was Winston Churchill who suggested that it was rebuilt from the rubble as a reminder of the sadness of war.
~~House of Commons~~
Initially I found the House of Commons a little disappointing after the breathtaking beauty of the Lords. Rebuilt after the Blitz, is has a rather functional and austere style, with its famous green benches, and wooden panelling. As we moved further in however, I was struck with an immense sense of history. We walked along the front benches and I briefly stood in front of the Dispatch boxes, amazed at the thought of the great men and women who had stood on that exact same spot. Our guide entertained us with stories of Michael Heseltine brandishing the mace and other scandals. As we looked at the red lines that ran along the carpet infront of the front benches, she explained that they were exactly the width of two swords apart, so that opposing sides could never attack each other, as they were never allowed to cross the line.
The Commons affected me just as strongly as the Lords; although it did not have the breathtaking architecture, the strong sense of history and occasion made up for it.
The division lobbies were a fascinating part of the visit. Two of these long, book-lined corridors run along each side of the House, and they are where the voting takes place. Our guide explained that one side is for Ayes and the other for Noes; as the speaker calls for a vote, those voting Aye (Yes) to any proposition walk through the division lobby to the right of the Speaker and those voting No through the lobby to the left. At the same time a bell starts ringing all through parliament, in the hairdressers, in the meeting rooms, and in several pubs in Whitehall. The bells rings for eight minutes, and MPs must come running to vote, since the door keepers shut the doors firmly in their faces once the bell stops ringing. The whips stand at the entrances, pointing the MPs in the right direction so that they vote with their parties. Once the door is shut, they each file past two officials who stand at lecturns. They say their name and Aye (or No) and then pass back into the House.
I loved this detail. Tony Blair tried to change the voting system to an electronic system, similar to that used in the Scottish parliament - but I am glad that his attempt to modernise failed. As well as continuing a very old tradition, we were told that this system of voting provided a welcome opportunity for some MPs to chat to each other.
~~The Rest of the Tour~~
As we said goodbye to our guide, we were left with an education officer, who took the students through a mock election as a way of demonstrating the differences between first past the post and PR. We also had a visit from our local MP, who conducted a quick Q&A session with the students. The whole visit was well managed and totally fascinating, and I was sorry that it had come to an end.
~~How to Visit~~
Although visiting the Houses of Parliament is free and accessible to anybody who cares to apply, in reality, obtaining a ticket is a fairly complicated process. For any UK resident, tours can be arranged by contacting their local MP. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to email your MP from the House of Commons webpage. Your MP will then send you a ticket for a future date, and may well give you a quick tour of the Houses, but the wait can be quite considerable and the tour will not be as extensive as an educational tour.
Another way of seeing the House of Commons is to watch a debate. UK residents and overseas visitors may watch debates for free on current issues or proposed new laws in both Houses by visiting the public galleries - but they do have to sit in the visitors gallery behind the glass safety screen. There is a public queue for both UK residents and foreign visitors - outside the Cromwell Green visitor entrance. A wait of one or two hours is common for these tickets.
I was lucky enough to be part of a school visit. Obtaining tickets for this visit was also difficult. The dates that tickets are released are publicised on the website, and it is then rather like getting tickets for a rock concert - pressing redial constantly and trying to get somebody to pick up before they are all sold out. My school started calling at 9am on the day the tickets were released - by midday they were all gone.
The trip was very special, and I think that such informative and lengthy tours are quite rare. The service provided by the Education Officers was exceptional- our guide made the visit very interactive and managed to impart a lot of interesting information without losing the interest of the students.
Summary: If you get the opportunity, jump at the chance!