The Palace of Westminster, or Houses of Parliament as it’s commonly referred to, is one of London’s ultimate tourist hot spots, even if Big Ben is hibernating for the next three years whilst he gets a makeover. When I first arrived in London in the late 1980s, I would count the days until megalomaniac MP Alan B’Stard’s face would literally hit my telly in ‘The New Statesman’ (played by the late, utterly brilliant Rik Mayall). In the 1990s, it was the turn of Machiavellian Francis Urquhart in ‘House of Cards’, who I think makes his American counterpart Francis Underwood, look like a mouse. These two programs were my entrée into the Houses of Parliament, the corridors of Westminster and the machinations of British politics. I decided it was time to discover what these mystical, ceremonious halls of fame looked like in the stony flesh, so off I trotted for a touristy day out to the Houses of Parliament, followed by a spot of afternoon tea in the Terrace Pavilion.
A Tour of the Houses of Parliament
No boarding cards required but…
Be warned, you will get security checked, airport-style, before you cross the threshold of the glorious building. We don’t want any newbie Guy Fawkes coming in here, thank you very much.
This is where the tour starts. Westminster Hall is an impressive 900 years old and the oldest bit of the building. Entry is free, and you can take photos in the hall.
Elizabeth I had her coronation banquet in Westminster Hall, and monarchs are laid in state in the great room. Only 2 civilians have had the same resting privilege: Winston Churchill and William Gladstone. Stand on the spot where the Queen Mother lay in state for four days. You can also stand where the high and mighty were sentenced to death: William Wallace (Braveheart) in 1305, Thomas More in 1535, and Charles I in 1649.
Do you think Francis Urquhart would have liked the Chief Whip mug from the shop? I couldn’t possibly comment.
In 1605, a Mr Guy Fawkes was arrested whilst trying to light gunpowder in the belly of the Houses of Parliament. The powder in question was said to have been “manufactured by a gunpowder manufacturer within earshot of the Bells of Bow,” which points the explosive finger to a John Pain, founder of Pains Fireworks. The company is still going strong, creating pyrotechnic magic for the Thames Festival and the London Olympics. Fawkes was tried in Westminster Hall together with his seven co-conspirators. James I and his family watched the proceedings in secret.
The Royal Loo
Her Majesty the Queen makes an annual visit here for the State Opening of Parliament, but not without a search of the building by the Beefeaters for any potential Gunpowder Plots first. She enters through the Sovereign Tower and into the House of Lords via the Royal Robing Room. Here, she puts on her ceremonial dress and the Imperial State Crown before up to the House of Lords. Last year, and for the first time, the Queen took the lift to get upstairs. See if you can find the secret door in the Robing Room which leads to a royally-appointed private bathroom.
The Broom Cupboard
You will probably have heard of the name Emily Wilding Davison – she’s the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby in the name of injustice suffered by women. Emily also hid in a broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census so that she could give her address as the House of Commons. I can imagine Alan B’Stard hanging out in here, kicking the crap out of poor Piers Fletcher-Dervish in ‘The New Statesman.’
The Division Bell
Members of Parliament have eight minutes to get into the voting chamber once the Division Bell rings. It sounds throughout the Palace as well as in some government buildings and Westminster pubs. Across the road from the Houses of Parliament is the Red Lion pub with its own division bell inside. How many minutes do you reckon it takes to down a pint of beer and get into the voting chamber for a yay or nay vote?
As you enter the House of Commons, walk past the towering statues of Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. Superstitious Members of Parliament will rub their gleaming toes for good luck prior to speaking in the chamber.
Heinz, who now produce the iconic brown sauce, claim that HP has been “adding oomph to your favourite dishes since 1903.” In fact, the brown gravy was invented in 1895 by a Nottingham grocer, Frederick Gibson Garton. Hearing that a restaurant in the Houses of Parliament was serving it, he named it HP Sauce, slapped a picture of Big Ben on the bottle, and the rest is culinary history.
House of colours
Afternoon Tea in the Terrace Pavilion
My tour of the Houses of Parliament was rounded off with a spot of afternoon tea overlooking the Thames. We were asked to wait a few minutes after the tour and then escorted to our table in the all-weather conservatory, called the Terrace Pavilion.
We kicked off afternoon tea with a selection of cold sandwiches including salt beef and salmon gravadlax. There were vegetarian options as well.
The afternoon tea includes a selection of macarons, a passion fruit and pistachio tart, and a scone with jam and Devonshire clotted cream.
The Millionaires Shot was a delectable combination of salted caramel with crisp white chocolate, chocolate mousse, shortbread and chocolate. Yummy.
There were plenty of teas to choose from, and I opted for a very British Earl Grey. For £9 you could add a glass of Champagne.
The Afternoon Tea costs £29 for adults (the tour is not included). There is also a £14.50 children’s afternoon tea option with a selection of sandwiches, crisps, chocolate chip scone and a Big Ben shortbread biscuit.
Visiting Houses of Parliament
There are several options for visiting the Houses of Parliament:
- Audio tour on Saturdays throughout the year and on weekdays when Parliament is not in session.
- A guided tour in a range of languages. The guided tour lasts approximately 90 minutes.
- A family guided tour for children aged 7 to 12 and which lasts approximately 90 minutes,
For more information and prices visit the Houses of Parliament website.