Touring the houses of Parliament was the most amazing sightseeing experience I’ve had in London yet. More on why below the fold.
There are three ways you can take a tour of Parliament:
- If you’re an overseas visitor, you have to buy tickets. During the summer season, tours are given Monday-Saturday, and only on Saturdays the rest of the year.
- UK residents can contact your local MP to book a tour, and tours are available on weekdays throughout the year for residents. (Sorry, visitors.) Bookings have to be made in advance, but they’re free. I tried contacting my MP and got a very helpful response in two working days! So don’t let inertia stop you from doing this. It’s so worth it!
- For people who don’t make it to London at all, there’s a pretty impressive virtual tour available online. It’s incredibly detailed and informative, with 360-views of everything. I was so enamored after my trip to Parliament that I did it all again via virtual tour. Try the House of Lords tour, in particular, and don’t forget to zoom up from time to time. The ceilings are beautiful.
Oh, and the fourth is to have a friend who works there and can sign you in! M works in an MP’s office, and she very kindly took C and me around Parliament for an hour yesterday. M is very much a history buff and an animated storyteller, and she did an incredible job explaining the meaning behind some of Parliament’s many rituals and rules.
Photography isn’t allowed in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Elsewhere I might have been tempted to sneak a picture while the lethargic museum guards get distracted by their own yawning, but here there were policemen everywhere! So I’ll have to convince you by words rather than pictures today.
The Palace of Westminster (a.k.a. Houses of Parliament) is not as decadent as Versailles or as sumptuous as the Royal Palace. But unlike those places, history is not just on the walls or cast in stone statues. It all still matters. It’s embedded into the form of government that exists today and incorporated into rituals that are still carried out. The walls and ceilings are brightly lit and you’re standing right in the middle of it all, not just in roped-off sections. You can’t sit on the Lords’ benches and you certainly can’t touch the golden thrones, but you do see them up close in all their splendor. And you can tell that great expense goes into preserving all the gold-gilded thrones, the richly decorated ceilings, the paintings of monarchs and their wives (yes, all of Henry VIII’s stand alongside each other).
I think I finally get it—the draw of the changing of the guards, the fascination with royals. When you visit Versailles for example, everything is in the past tense. Marie Antoinette lost her head, reducing her stamp on history to a mere quip that she probably didn’t even say. But none of the history here, for all its vicissitudes, feels obsolete. Even the stories of those who overthrew monarchs and later lost their heads for it are all preserved and on display. Oliver Cromwell’s signature calling for the head of Charles I is encased in glass in the Royal Gallery. When the monarchy was restored, Cromwell’s own head was later posthumously exhumed from his grave, beheaded and put on a pike in this very place.
A statue of Churchill rather ponderously presides over the Churchill Arch leading to the Commons Chamber. The chamber had been badly damaged in wartime bombing, and Churchill afterwards had the archway rebuilt using rubble from the original, making it a live monument to “the ordeal of war, and as a reminder to future generations of the fortitude of those who stood firm through those times” (from the Parliament website, not Churchill’s own words).
I love that. Real, live history for all its twists and turns; dignity in the face of adversity. You walk where they walked.
One of the few places where photography is allowed is in Westminster Hall, which is reserved only for very special state occasions and speeches by dignitaries such as the Queen, the Pope, Nelson Mandela or, you know, Obama. The UK looooves the Obamas. Other American presidents and foreign heads of state have only been permitted to speak in the Royal Gallery. (Remember when Michelle put her arm around the Queen, and the Queen reciprocated?)
In the first two minutes of his speech, Obama acknowledges his rather anomalous inclusion in the list of those who’ve spoken here:
More Parliamentary things to do:
- Debates in both houses are open to the public, so when Parliament is in session you can attend by lining up at the public entrance on the day of. I tried to get tickets to the Prime Minister’s Questions, but my MP’s office told me that there’s already a waiting list well into NEXT YEAR. That’s how popular it is!
- You can also book a tour of the Big Ben where you get to climb up behind the clock face and look out over London. This needs to be booked in advance, also as far as I can tell by contacting your local MP.
I intend to do both of these things, so stay tuned for more on those!
*Huge thanks to M for showing us around! Seriously, I can’t believe that this is where you work every day!