The Palace of Westminster

This past week, while I didn’t have a reliable internet connection I wrote down some thoughts and observations from the day I left Houston and my first week in London. There’s a few days worth, so I’ll post them here over the next couple of days.

2007-09-28 – Friday

Today we toured the Palace of Westminster which today houses the Houses of Parliament. Parliament consists of the House of Lords, which is the upper house, roughly analogous to our Senate and the House of Commons, similar to our House of Representatives. It’s known as a palace because it was originally occupied by one of the kings, I think they said William the Confessor, who moved into the mansion that was standing there when Westminster Abbey was being built because he wanted to oversee the construction. It’s right on the Thames, not far from Buckingham Palace.

The tour was conducted by guides who work at the palace and it was quite a busy operation. There were about four tours running, although the start times were staggered by perhaps 7 minutes. Nevertheless, the other tours kept coming up behind us and bumping.

The palace is a palace. You aren’t allowed to take pictures, but guides described the style, at least in the first part as “neo-Gothic, or leave no space uncovered.” From the detailed patterns on the ceilings, to the large mosaics and portraits that filled the walls, to the design of the carpet, furniture and the light fixtures, everything was opulent to the extreme. I say the first part, because the tour was conducted in the following order: first, we traced the path that the Queen takes about once a year to open a new session of Parliament, from the Sovereign’s Gate through a hall that is used once a year to watch her procession and the royal robing room, until it reached this enormous throne at one end of the House of Lords. The throne was oak covered in gold leaf and it covered almost an entire wall. That point in the House of Lords represents the furthest point the sovereign is allowed to reach in Parliament. When the Queen comes to Parliament to address the combined bodies, she sits on the throne and then sends a representative to walk down the length of the building to the House of Commons and summon them to the House of Lords to hear her address.

There’s a story for why that is, going back to one of the kings, I think Charles the I, who came to the House of Commons looking for five members who were rabble-rousing against him. He was turned back by the Speaker of the House and from that point forward, no sovereign is allowed into the House of Commons.

The way the palace is laid out, the chambers of the two houses lie on a straight line, separated by a octagonal lobby that has two hallways going off at a perpendicular.  But you can stand at the end of the House of Commons, where the big green Speaker’s Chair is and see all the way through to the throne in the House of Lords.

The color all the way through, up to the House of Lords is dominated by red, down to the color of the benches in the House of Lords. As you pass through their chamber, into the lobby, two things change. First the dominant color changes to green, the color of the House of Commons and second, the decoration becomes much more simple. While the style is still grand and everything is very nice, you don’t see the opulent details, instead smooth walls of stone, or with wood paneling.

Two interesting things in the lobby between the two houses: 1) the statutes of honored prime ministers, including Winston Churchill and the very recently added statute of Margaret Thatcher, and 2) the entry to the House of Commons, a stone archway with a wooden door. The arch itself was destroyed by a bomb in World War II and Winston Churchill ordered it rebuilt from the same stones, so you see uneven and jagged rocks in the arch. The door is made of solid wood and part of the tradition from earlier where the Queen sends her representative to summon the House of Commons is that when he arrives the door is slammed in his face and he knocks on it with the rod he’s carrying. You can see the mark in the wood where the rod has worn it down from being struck repeatedly.

We finished in the House of Commons, where we could walk among the benches, but were not permitted to sit. We also got to walk through the rooms used for voting. In most cases, votes are conducted by voice, with Ayes and Nays, but when its too close to call, the members separate into two chambers, one on each side of the house and then they are literally funneled through three desks where their names are recorded and they are individually counted as they exit double-doors, held open only wide enough for one person to pass at a time.

The tour finishe dup in Westminster Hall, outside of the House of Commons. The hall is used for any number of state events, from bodies lying in state, to the Queen’s Jubilee speech or addresses from dignitaries. It has stood where it does now for close to 1000 years. As the guide pointed out, any notable figure in British history has stood in that hall at one time or another, one the same spot we stood on.

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2 Responses

  1. You should make an additional page on your blog with your Travel stuff. It would make it easier to keep track of.

  2. yeah, that’s a good idea

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