The Palace of Westminster is my favorite building in London, and I always recommend it to my friends and family as a must-see. Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben are an iconic part of the London cityscape, similar to the Space Needle in Seattle. It has taken me months to grasp Parliament, the Royal Family, and the importance of Westminster locale has to the United Kingdom.
As someone from the United States, it’s a little hard to understand the functions of Parliament and the Royal Family’s role in the government. If you’re interested in history, architecture, or government, I highly recommend taking a tour of the Houses of Parliament before the proposed restoration commences and the Houses are temporarily relocated. The Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben have already seen some restoration this year as the clock paused chiming until 2021.
Now, it’s time for some full disclosure: I’m still learning about the Houses of Parliament and the government as a whole. I’ve never been into politics or government affairs, especially when they are splashed across the news. I applaud Brits (and other EU countries) for knowing the issues and being involved. With the recent election of President Trump, I’m taking it as a wake-up call to have more interest in the causes that matter to me, like public lands and climate change.
I’ve found this video to be helpful when starting to figure out how Parliament works.
A Quick Rundown about the Palace of Westminster
Also known as the Houses of Parliament, the Palace is the meeting place for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and managed by the speakers of both houses and their committees.
A Summary of the Houses of Parliament Blue Badge Tour
Palace of Westminster Architecture
After the 1834 fire, Charles Barry won the public competition to design present Gothic-styled palace. Instead of taking the proposed several years to rebuild, it took roughly 30 years. The tour highlights some of the key designs. Barry mentored and worked with the young Augustus Welby Pugin to help with the Gothic design as Barry’s expertise was more of a classical-style.
Westminster Hall is where the tours begin and one of the few areas that allow photography. Westminster Hall has been in existence as early as 1097, is the oldest building in Parliament and was the largest hall of its time.
The hammer-beam roof (first commissioned in 1393) has been restored over the years as the architectural feat required reinforcement and the roof needed replaced. A fire in 1834 destroyed most of the interior of the hall but the roof was hosed with water in order to save it. Most recently, the beams were in a bad state due cavities caused by death-watch beetle. Concealed steelwork was added while trying to preserve the original aesthetic. It still stands even after being bombed during the Second World War in May of 1941.
St. Stephen’s Hall
Exit Westminster Hall and enter St. Stephen’s Hall passing through New Dawn door, which was designed by Mary Branson to celebrate 150 years since the campaign for women’s votes. The door is a light installation with “glass discs are a direct reference to the parchment scrolls which line the famous Act Room of the Parliamentary Archives in the Victoria Tower, and where the legislation which brought women the vote and a say in the laws that govern them is stored.” Source.
Tip: Take a picture of the door on the beginning of the tour and at the end. Compare the photos and see how they have changed in the 90-minutes.
The Hall is lined with art and sculptures recovered from St Stephen’s Chapel after the fire. It’s also where the public lines up to enter the House of Commons to observe debates.
The Central Lobby is the midpoint between the two Houses. It is also a place where the public can lobby to Parliament Members and the Lords. As one enters the lobby, the decorative encaustic tiled floor welcomes its visitors. The tiles were designed to take year of foot traffic without losing its pattern. Currently, the tiles are being restored. Royal statues decorate the arches surrounding the high windows in the lobby depicting past kings and queens.
The lobby also hosts the Admission Order Office, Reception Desk, a live broadcast point, and a post office. The Reception Desk is staffed when either of the Houses are in session and is where the visiting public can attempt to schedule a meeting with their MP (Member of Parliament). A Live Broadcast Point was established in the lobby where the press can interview Members. On days the Prime Minister attends the House of Commons, gallery tickets are issued at the Admission Order Office. Tickets aren’t required on days the Prime Minister isn’t present.
Located at the base of the Victoria Tower, the Norman Porch is used by the Sovereign when entering the palace. The Royal Staircase is used to enter the Norman Porch and is the procession for the State Opening of Parliament on the path to the House of Lords.
Fun fact: Queen Victoria rarely attended the state openings. Queen Elizabeth II has now only missed it twice for the birth of her children.
Also known as the Queen Chambers, the room is used by the Head of State to dress before the State Opening of Parliament. When ready, the Head of State (the Queen) leaves the Robing Room, passes through the Royal Gallery, Prince’s Chamber, and enters the House of Lords.
Continuing the procession from the Robing Room, the Head of State enters a procession of trumpets with roughly 300 people in the hall for the State Opening. Normally used for important occasions, such as state receptions and dinners, the Royal Gallery is now used as a working space for peers. Originally called Victoria Gallery, it’s the largest room of the Palace and a part of Victoria and Albert timeframe. Look around the gallery and see portraits of past monarchs.
Two large fresco paintings hang in the gallery and were two out of eighteen commissioned to the Irish artist, Daniel Maclise. Maclise researched both the Battle of Waterloo and Battle of Trafalgar to get accurate representations for the pieces. Maclise was new to the fresco style, where painting was one done on plaster. Waterloo (1861) and Trafalgar (1865) took longer than planned (16 to 18 months each) and the fading paint resulted in without further commissions.
Before and after business, Members use this area to discuss topics of interest with direct access to the House of Lords Chamber. As you enter, the marble Statue of Queen Victoria by John Gibson is hard to miss. Dated 1855, the statue includes Justice and Mercy next to Queen Victoria with pedestal panels representing commerce, science, and industry.
Prince Albert commissioned 28 portraits of monarchs from the Tudor Royal Family to artist Richard Burchett and his pupils. The portraits circle the room and are oil paint on timber panels. If you look close, you’ll find some of the wife portraits and names to be incorrect. Above the portraits, a series of six paintings of the Spanish Armada of 1855 hang as a tribute to the tapestries destroyed in the 1834 fire. Mark Piggott made a generous donation and the paintings were finally finished in 2010.
House of Lords Chamber
Pugin and Barry view the chamber as their masterpiece since this House of Lords Chamber is where the Sovereign, the Commons and the Lords come together. The room is decorated in red for the color of the Lords. A canopy made of wood and gilded in gold is where the throne (1847) is located and used for the State Opening of Parliament. The Lord Great Chamberlain carries in a white stick raised to summoned Commons. Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod goes to the Central Lobby and bangs on House of Commons door three times after the door is purposely slammed in his face. After, the Members of the House of Commons join the House of Lords in the Lords Chamber to hear the Sovereign make a speech to open Parliament from the throne.
Centered between the throne and the benches, the Woolsack is where the Lord Speaker sits. However, unlike the House of Commons, the Speaker doesn’t conduct the business of the House of Lords but is the representative of the Lords. Yes, the Lords still wear wigs.
Members are appointed and are life peers whose jobs are to amend the bills and legislation that comes out of Parliament. House of Lords is a check and balances for the House of Commons. The House of Lords can delay but never veto legislation. Then the game of ping pong between the Houses happen law is signed. The House of Lords has roughly 800 Members. Prime Minister appoints Members to House of Lords and Members average age is 69 with the youngest being 39‒and usually are aristocrats. Former Members of the House of Commons usually come here to die is the joke.
The statues above the galleries in the Lords Chamber are of the 18 barons who sealed the Magna Carta‒a fundamental English law document.
The Moses Room
The Moses Room is used by the Grand Committees and is named after the large fresco artwork that hangs in the room.
Member’s Lobby of the House of Commons
The tour continues winding through decorated corridors and libraries. The Member’s corridor links the Commons Chamber and is used for a working or a waiting room for Members. When the House of Commons is in session, the only people permitted in the lobby besides the MPs are security staff and the press. Lobby correspondents can wait here and whips make sure MPs vote how they are supposed to vote for their party. Message and letter boards are located in the lobby where MPs can check to see the topics of the discussions in the Chambers. The boxes light up when they have messages.
The Churchill Arch was restored after the Second World War bombings at the direction of Winston Churchill, a former Prime Minister. Along with the arch, there are statues of prior prime ministers in the lobby.
Parliament is a factory of law. A division bell will ring in many buildings and Members have only minutes to vote by walking through the lobbies. There are two lobbies: aye lobby and no lobby. Clerks count the votes and give results to Speaker of the House. The average is 5.5 months to get a bill through the Houses and approved. Royal assent is the final stage of the bill.
House of Commons Chamber
The House of Commons is known as the place where Members pass laws, debate issues, and question the ministers. The current chamber was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott after it was heavily bombed during the Second World War. Unlike the red decor in the House of Lords, the benches in the House of Commons are green. The Speaker’s chair is located in the middle aisle on the one end of the chamber. Benches face each other with two sides: the opposition (left of the Speaker) and government (right of the speaker). Member’s sit in their affiliation sections (Conservative, Labour, etc.). There are currently 650 Members in the House of Commons.
Visiting on a day that Parliament is in session? Consider attending the sessions in the public galleries that overlook. Here, the public can get a sense of how laws are passed in the United Kingdom. It was quite exciting when I visited outside of the tour.
Know Before You Go
If you can, buy tickets ahead of time. The tours (guided and audio) do not run when Parliament is in session, so make sure to look at the calendar at least a couple of weeks before your visit. If you wait to the last minute, you may be disappointed.
I haven’t seen long queues at the ticket office, which is located across the street from Parliament near the Underground Station. The staff can let you know what you can access during the week if you didn’t buy tickets ahead of time.
2. Tours and Entrance
Pick the tour that best suits your travel style: Guided or audio. If you want to go at your own pace, go with the audio tour. The guided tours give you some information you may not find on the plaques and audio guide and gives you access to ask a knowledgeable Blue Badge Guide any question you may have. I chose to go guided since I had a bunch of lingering questions on how things work.
After securing your tickets, cross the street and walk down the outside of Westminster Palace. You’ll pass several private entrances before arriving at the Cromwell Green Entrance. Present your ticket, go through security, and meet your tour or pick up your audio guide in Westminster Hall.
3. House of Commons Debates
Are the tour tickets sold out or is Parliament in session? Head to the ticket office or go to the Cromwell Green Entrance to see if there is a long queue to watch the debates. Only a couple hundred people from the public are permitted to watch at a time so depending on the topic and if the Prime Minister is scheduled to be present, you may find yourself waiting for awhile. Either get there early or make a game day decision. Note: If you’re going on the tour, you’ll see the room where the House of Commons meet.