Tour and Afternoon Tea at the UK Parliament
We have recently visited UK Parliament as part of our 5-day London itinerary (stay tuned for daily break downs with videos!). We would have visited the Parliament even if we only had 1 or 2 days in the city! You might not always agree with UK politics but there is no denying that UK Parliament is a fascinating institution to include on your London itinerary – with or without the kids!
We have booked a Saturday audio guide tour and enjoyed moving at our own pace (scroll to the end of the post for other visiting options).
What makes visiting Parliament so fascinating is the presence of the well-kept traditions. The centuries of British history come alive as you make your way along the tour. The building’s official name is the Palace of Westminster, as it was constructed on the site of the palace built for Edward the Confessor, Anglo-Saxon monarch of England, some time between 1045-1050.
The Palace was rebuilt between 1840-1870 (following the fire of 1834) in a neo-Gothic style by the architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. There are stained glass windows, spires and statures along its three miles of passages (there are over 1,000 rooms and 100 staircases).
Our tour starts at the grandiose Westminster Hall; it survived the fire of 1834 and is the oldest building in England dating to 1097.
It is the site of William the Conqueror’s first palace (1050) and it is here where royal leaders and heads of state lie in state (it is here where the British public paid their respects to Prime Minister Winston Churchill before he was laid to rest in 1965.)
Next stop on the tour is St. Stephen’s Hall which was originally used as a House of Commons before the 1834 fire.
You can sit at the green benches of St. Stephen’s, admire the many paintings and sculptures around you and imagine how members of the Parliament argued from the opposite sides of the Hall. This format is preserved in the current House of Commons where two red lines (two-sword-lengths apart) prevent Members from crossing to the other side during the debate (note that you cannot sit on the benches of the two Houses during the tour).
It was here at St. Stephen’s Hall that British history made a major turn in 1642 when King Charles I marched in with his 400 soldiers and demanded the turn over of 5 Members. This act snowballed into the Civil war and subsequent execution of the King as Parliament became the dominant power in British politics.
Our tour proceeds through the Central Lobby to the House of Lords (on the right) and House of Commons (on the left). We follow Yes and No lobbies to enter the Lords’ chambers (there are also opposing entry ways in the House of Commons; they are used to count the Yes and No votes for major issues).
Unlike those of us on the tour, Her majesty the Queen (and other royalty) are not allowed into the Commons Chambers since that fateful 1642 visit. The Queen makes her appearance in the House of Lords once a year to mark the official start of the the Parliamentary year.
There is a lot of protocol surrounding the royal trip in her Irish coach from Buckingham Palace. Once her majesty is enthroned at the House of Lords, the official known as ‘Black Rod’ (Queen’s messenger) is sent to summon the members of the House of Commons to attend the speech. The door is first symbolically slammed in his (or her!) face, symbolizing the Commons’ independence from the monarchy (current Black Rod is Sarah Clarke, first woman ever to hold this post). Black Rod strikes the door with the rod three times before it is finally opened and he (or she) is able to invite the Members to follow him back to the Lords’.
The audio guide notes the dent in the woodwork where hundreds of successive Black Rods have made their mark.
In the Members Lobby we recognize the statutes of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.
You can’t help but notice the colors of the chambers: Red for the Lords and Green for the Commons (I invite you to discuss the symbolism of these colors with your kids).
What is not as obvious is that despite there being 650 Members (MPs) of the House of Commons, there are only 427 seats – so there is often standing room only – on big days, such as the budget discussions. To guarantee a spot on the green benches, MPs have to place a “prayer card” in the place they would like to sit at 8am. They then have to be in the chamber at the start of that day’s sitting, for prayers. Yes, every day at the Commons still begins with 3-minute prayers!
For more Parliamentary rules and traditions, follow this link to the Parliament’s official website.
We follow our tour with the traditional Afternoon Tea at the Commons’ riverside dining room. It offers exquisite savory and sweet treats served with utmost attention to detail (and most beautiful view). Here is a Video of our experience.
TIPS for Visiting UK Parliament:
♦ On most Saturdays (and weekdays when Parliament is not in session) you can visit as part of the guided group tour (these sell out weeks in advance); there are also audio guide tours which are easier to book (child-friendly group tours and audio guide versions are available).
♦ Free 75-minute guided tours are available for UK residents on weekdays throughout the year.
♦ UK and foreign visitors can watch live debates and hearings taking place in the House of Commons and House of Lords from the public galleries from Monday to Thursday (and some Fridays). Here is the Schedule of sitting days and what’s on the agenda. Arrive one hour before the session begins and wait at the Cromwell Green visitor entrance. Beware that Visitor access while the Prime Minister is addressing the Parliament on Wednesday mornings is limited to ticket holders only (obtainable by contacting the Members of the Parliament).
♦ The bells of the Elizabeth Tower, previously called the Clock Tower but more popularly known as Big Ben are now silent during the Tower’s renovation (to be completed sometime in the early 2020s).
♦ Tours plus afternoon tea are available on most Saturdays throughout the year and on selected weekdays during parliamentary recesses.
We thank Visit Parliament for inviting us on this tour. Check the website for prices and visit times .