Thursday, December 8, 2011
I haven’t learned much about the British lawmaking process in my four years of living in London. As an immigrant, I don’t even have the right to vote in the UK. So when I was invited on a private tour of the Houses of Parliament this week, it was my curiosity about the history of the place rather than my interest in the legislative process that prompted me to accept the invitation.
I arrived on Tuesday morning and was met by a friend of a friend who used to be a tour guide at the Houses of Parliament. She no longer gives tours, but made a special exception for us. She generously set aside her morning to take us to both the public areas and behind-the-scenes parts of the building complex.
As fitting with English culture, she started out by showing us one of the many pubs. It never occurred to me that the Houses of Parliament would also house drinking establishments, but my guide assured me that there were plenty of them throughout the maze of halls and tunnels.
From there we walked outside into a courtyard where I learned that there was not only a parking garage underneath us, but also a shooting range. Who knew?
Our next stop was the beautiful terrace facing the Thames. On our left was Westminster Bridge, which was painted green for the House of Commons, while on our right was the Lambeth Bridge, which was painted red for the House of Lords. In the background was the stunning orbit of the London Eye.
Back inside, we walked up a staircase flanked on either side by early medieval paintings. While there we learned that a fire in 1834 had destroyed most of the buildings and their contents. The Houses of Parliament that we know today are a Victorian neo-Gothic creation that replaced the former complex on the premises.
Our Houses of Parliament tour continued as we walked up some stairs with massive portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and statues of former prime ministers. Afterwards we headed over to the House of Lords Chamber. The ornately decorated room was impressive in its grandiosity, and deceitful in its diminutive size. In the back was a throne for the Queen that was part solid gold.
Behind it was the Queen’s Robing Room, where she dons her cloak and crown before addressing parliament. Next to it was the Royal Gallery, which was full of portraits of former monarchs and larger-than-life paintings of the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar. Above the battle scenes were hooks from which curtains could be hung should French heads of state come to visit. Yes, really.
After seeing the House of Lords Chamber, we passed through the stunning octagonal Central Lobby and made our way down a corridor to the House of Commons Chamber. It was much newer and less ornate, partly owing to the fact that it was destroyed by bombs during World War II. Still, it was an impressive room.
Moving out into the public areas, we walked past more statues of important personages in St Stephen’s Hall, which was a celebration of all things British. Eventually we came to the massive Westminster Hall, which boasted of the largest hammer-beam ceiling in Europe. The hall had been the location of everything from the trials of 17th century kings to the speeches of present day visiting heads of state.
Next to it was an area that most visitors don’t get to see: the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. Through a door that was clearly marked as prohibited for non-staff, we entered a gorgeous church complete with original 14th century ceiling adornments and one of the most impressive baptismal fonts I have ever seen.
Just outside of the chapel was a tiny space called the Suffragettes’ Closet. A plaque on the inside described how one suffragette hid overnight in the closet during the campaign to win women the right to vote in the early 20th century.
A century later, this Lady in London is still disenfranchised. But even though I wasn’t involved in electing those that run the lawmaking process in the UK, I still appreciated the history of the Houses of Parliament on my tour. It’s a start.