Do you remember that 80s advert where King Kong climbs up the Houses of Parliament only for it to splinter like matchsticks in his grasp? He’s eventually lured away by some giant chewy sweets, but the genius of that concept always stuck in my head because on the thousands of occasions when I’ve walked by, it really does look like it’s made from matchsticks. It’s probably the most famous British building in the world –the often-seen shot from across the bridge instantly places any film or TV drama in London, and arguably some of the most important events in British (and world) history have occurred in its chambers; yet how often do you ever really look at it? It’s long been my favourite London building, designed by Charles Barry who won an architectural competition in the 1830s, after a fire destroyed the original medieval building, and there are clear similarities with his other famous work, Highclere Castle, used in the TV version of Brideshead Revisited and now Downton Abbey.
It was only this summer that I realised public tours were available; I’d always assumed that entry was only via your MP. Having tried and failed on a couple of Saturdays to get in – clearly everyone else in London knew about the tours – I pre-booked and made my way through the un-intrusive security procedures to Westminster Hall, a remaining vestige of the medieval structure, built just shy of a thousand years ago. From here, we headed through the building to the Queen’s Robing Room in order to follow the route she takes when opening session. Perhaps it’s easiest to imagine the interiors in two distinct styles; anywhere the Queen or Lords go is heavily decorated in gilt, covered in heraldic symbols and is among the grandest you’ll see anywhere. There are some very interesting frescos to remind the monarch of the chivalric characteristics they should embody. But most impressive, in the Royal Gallery, through which the Queen walks to the House of Lords, are some incredible 13 meter-long depictions of the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. The muted colour scheme and presence of numerous contorted figures give a more realistic impression of the horrors of war than many nineteenth century glory paintings.
The most striking thing about the House of Lords is the monarch’s throne, which is probably the goldest thing I have ever seen; even from across the room it’s blindingly shiny. Along the way, our guide was giving numerous insights into the history of the building and into the parliamentary process, explaining the strange rituals and ceremonies, which, as she interestingly pointed out, serve as a reminder that our current level of democracy has been hard won over hundreds of years and is not something to ever be complacent about. When you move through to the House of Commons, the architectural style changes to something considerably less exciting, almost drab by comparison – no wonder the Queen doesn’t go there. No painted ceilings or coats of arms, and the quality of the art is definitely mediocre. Then the 1.5 hour tour ends back where it started.
I have to complain about something so first a minor one; with three or four tours leaving every 15 minutes you’re often running into other groups and in places it’s hard to hear your own guide. My second gripe is that there is a high reverence for the places you see on the tour, but Westminster Hall itself is treated as little more than a stable, people waiting for tours to begin, a half-hearted gift shop and a couple of information desks. Yet so many extraordinary things have happened there – the trials of William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and Sir Thomas Moore to name a few. Even more vitally, this room is the location of the trial and sentencing of King Charles I on the charge of treason, which set Britain on the road to regicide, republic and eventually to the much reduced monarchy we now have. So it’s actually a bit sad to see the Hall reduced to peddling parliamentary-themed tat. It is a bit expensive, but nevertheless the tour is worth doing, whether you go for the design, the art or because everyone should see the place where our laws have and continue to be shaped.
Tours of Parliament run every Saturday throughout the year and cost £16.50, as well as Tuesday-Friday during the summer recess.