Did you know that as a resident of the United Kingdom you could tour The Houses of Parliament for free? You need to be sponsored by a member of Parliament or the House of Lords. There are also guided tours of Parliament for non-residents but these tours you have to pay for. So I was lucky to be part of a group that went from our area courtesy of our local MP.
The Palace of Westminster which houses the two houses of Parliament is a pretty impressive building with a history that covers almost a 1000 years. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the palace is one of the iconic images of London. The Palace is fronted on one side by the River Thames.
On the land side of the building, this statue of Richard the Lionheart (King of England from 1189-199) presides over a courtyard which has now been turned over to being a car park. Ironically Richard only spent about 6 months of his reign actually in England because he was off fighting the Crusades (using revenue raised from his English subjects). I can’t decide if having Richard presiding over a car park is a bit of that famous English irony that I still don’t really get.
The oldest part of the Palace you see is Westminster Hall which was built in 1097 and is an impressive piece of medieval architecture. It survived a fire in 1834 which destroyed most of the rest of the building.
Most of the Palace you see today is from a Gothic Revival rebuild of the palace by Sir Charles Barry after the fire. Like any good architect, Barry’s estimates were way off for the project. He thought it would take 6 years and about £700,000 when in fact it would take 30 years and over £2 million (in 19th century money).
What a result! The building is a frothy concoction of vaulted ceilings, stained glass, stone and wood carvings, and other details that are designed to impress upon the viewer the solidity and mightiness of the British government. These corridors of power were responsible for the British Empire which in its heyday covered almost 25% of the world’s land mass. Don’t you forget it! The British certainly haven’t.
I always love looking through gift shops. And, frankly, most of the time you can’t exit a monument without going through the gift shop. So you might as well enjoy it. My pick from the Houses of Parliament gift shop? House of Lords Chardonnay and House of Commons Sauvignon Blanc. Presumably a career in politics requires a stiff drink at the end of each day.
The website for the UK parliament has more information on guided tours, both for residents and non-resident. I also like the option of having a tour that is followed by afternoon tea on the Terrace Pavillion. I have a soft spot for Afternoon Tea and can’t think of prettier surroundings to scoff scones.