London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

An American View Of The Houses Of Parliament

13/06/2002, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 22693 votes

To someone with a love for British politics, a visit to Parliament is the jewel in the crown of a trip to London. But a love for politics is not required in order to enjoy the majestic Palace of Westminster -- the home of the Houses of Parliament, a place of unique architectural design and tremendous historical significance.

It was with no small amount of excitement that my husband and I made our way from Westminster tube stop to the Victoria Tower entrance of the Palace of Westminster. It was nearly 9:30, the designated time for the tour we had arranged several months earlier. This was the last week of the Christmas recess, and the Houses were not sitting.

Special permits in hand, we entered and began to walk the “line of route,” the route taken by the Queen each year when she opens Parliament, beginning at the Robing Room and ending in the House of Lords where she speaks to members of both Chambers, outlining the objectives of the Government for the upcoming session.

This not being a guided tour (but with officials present to answer questions), we were free to walk at our own pace, so we moved slowly in an attempt to absorb the grandeur around us. There could not have been more than half a dozen other tourists there, this being January. Vast beyond belief, there was beauty everywhere, from the magnificent paintings on the walls and ceilings to the intricate carvings.

We became lost in this world of splendour – literally, as we accidentally strayed off the authorized route and nearly ended up at the Lords Library before a nervous official ran after us with a cry, “You can’t go there!” We moved along, feeling a little thrill as we glimpsed the House of Lords for the first time, then the House of Commons.

The tour ended in the wonderful medieval Westminster Hall (over 900 years old), and we stood, all alone in the immense Hall, and contemplated some of what had transpired in years past. There were the trials, including those of Thomas More and Charles I, where, several centuries apart, they listened as they were sentenced to death. And at the time of our visit, George VI was the last monarch to lie in state in Westminster Hall (1952).

This would change as a mere 90 days after our visit, his beloved wife, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, would lie in state in that same place. We stepped out into the sunshine in New Palace Yard and took a picture of the Christmas tree.

One week later, we headed back to Westminster to continue our venture into Parliamentary London. First on the agenda was lunch, we walked down Victoria Street to the Albert, an enchanting Victorian era pub and restaurant that sits nearly hidden among skyscrapers and modern buildings on Victoria Street, being, as their menus proclaim, “the only building in this area of Victoria to survive the Blitz of World War II.”

We climbed the red-carpeted stairs to the restaurant on the second floor for the carvery buffet lunch (which was delicious) and sat in full view of the House of Commons division bell. This is a bell that is rung in pubs and restaurants in the Westminster area to alert Members of Parliament (“MPs”) to an imminent vote, or the “division.”

They then have only eight minutes to get into the Chamber to divide into one of two lobbies, either the “aye” lobby or the “no” lobby, depending, of course, on the way they wish to vote. It is in this way that the votes are registered as opposed to using a ballot. We imagined that all the people around us were MPs, and this added a bit of intrigue to the atmosphere.

But Politico’s, a bookshop specializing in political books, materials and gifts, was calling. I could hardly wait to see this shop I had visited only on the Internet. It was a block or so away down Artillery Row. Not only was it everything I had hoped it would be and more, it also had a large television broadcasting live from the House of Commons.

Having been unable to secure the coveted and rare tickets to Prime Minister’s Question Time (only a total of two tickets are available from the American Embassy for the entire population of the United States for each Question Time), we were nevertheless able to watch the lively and engaging encounter between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition from only a few blocks away from where it was actually happening.

It was a packed House, typical for this once-a-week occurrence (every Wednesday at 3:00) in which MPs are given a 30-minute opportunity to “have a go” at Mr. Blair. Armed with green and gold bags full of books and political memorabilia, we left and hurried to our real destination of the day, the Houses of Parliament.

We were able to go right in at St. Stephen’s entrance, but were told that “the House of Commons was a bit busy at the moment” and would we like to visit the House of Lords? That was fine with us as we had hoped to anyway, so after signing our papers saying we would not create a disturbance and checking in our bags, we entered the Strangers’ Gallery (anyone not a peer or member or Parliamentary official is a “stranger”) and watched as a very full House of Lords carried on a debate about reform of this Chamber.

After awhile, we left to go to the “other place” (which is how the Houses refer to each other). After more paper signing (once again, no disturbances), frisking and checking in of packages, we found ourselves in the House of Commons.

But where were all the MPs? Very few were there, and it had the look of a room after a party – Order Papers discarded and strewn all over the benches and a solitude not unlike that experienced after a storm. It was hard to believe that this was the same place that only an hour before had been bursting with MPs. But we didn’t care.

There was the Mace – the symbol of the presence of the monarch in the House of Commons since none, in the flesh, have entered since Charles I (and we know what happened to him). There was the Despatch Box where Prime Ministers have stood and passionate words have been spoken.

This was the place where the Chancellor of the Exchequer is permitted to have an alcoholic drink while delivering the budget speech. This was the place where a Member can introduce a Ten Minute Rule Bill – which can take up to 20 minutes.

This was the House of Commons – the much revered and respected and often controversial place that has played such an important part in the history of England, if not the world, almost immortal, and we were THERE.

We listened to the debate on Northern Ireland arms decommissioning for quite awhile. Finally, my husband nudged me that it was time to go (I could have sat there forever), and we rose to take our leave, but not without one wistful glance back at that glorious Chamber.

Link to The Houses of Parliament:

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