Houses of Parliament -- Summer Opening review
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I love this place. I even love the politicians inside it (well, most of them). If you come to London and don't go to the Summer Opening at the Houses of Parliament then you're basically nuts. It will have been a wasted trip. It's like going to Rome and not seeing the Vatican. Or going to Amsterdam and not getting stoned. A tour of this place will make your holiday. This is the one you'll be talking about for months afterwards.
They open it up to the public every summer when the MPs have their holidays, so we get to see inside the Commons, the House of Lords and all the Royal rooms as well. But first of all you have to negotiate the tight security at the entrance. As you can probably imagine, they don't mess about at the Houses of Parliament. They take your photo, snap x-rays of your skeleton, peer into your handbag, make you take your belt off, buzz you with a handheld metal detector... If they could take your teeth out and shake them, they would. The frisk that I received today was most thorough that I've ever experienced -- it felt like he was counting my bones with his fingers.
Once you've negotiated all of that you head into Westminster Hall where you'll wait for the guide. This is without a doubt the best waiting room in London, and dates back to the 11th-century. These heavy stone walls witnessed the trials of William Wallace, Charles I and Guy Fawkes. Unfortunately they've decided to hide them behind two huge yellow curtains at the moment. Apparently it's supposed to be an artwork but it looks more like a giant dust sheet.
I've been on this tour a few times now and you usually end up with a friendly granny-like lady who knows all there is to know about absolutely everything. That's who we had today. I didn't quite catch her name, but I'm guessing that it was something like Gladys or Marge. I bought myself an early morning ticket so our group only had ten people in it (I've been in groups that were double that). She walks you from room to room and sticks you in a quiet corner, then you all huddle round and switch your ears on, and she starts swivelling around pointing at all the paintings and statues and tells you who they are, etc, but she doesn't go overboard. Put it this way: there's enough there to interest you, but not enough to bore you. But it's the rooms you've really come to see anyway... and they definitely don't disappoint.
Some of them are quite dark and intimate, with deep reds and chestnut browns, whilst the bigger ones are pure theatre. If you've never been to Parliament before then you're in for a treat. The decorations in this place rival Buckingham Palace, and that is not an exaggeration. You'll still be thinking about this place on the plane back home. This is the one you'll tell your friends about. This is the highlight of your holiday.
You begin at the far end of the building, by the Norman Porch. If you've ever seen the State Opening of Parliament on TV then you will have seen a glimpse of the Norman Porch when the Queen enters the building. When she climbs up that first flight of stairs that is where she ends up. The tour then follows her journey all the way through to the House of Lords.
The second room is a blinder, and it's called the Robing Room. This is where the Queen puts on her garbs of State ready for the ceremony. This room is usually out of bounds to the TV cameras so you're getting a privileged peek here. I always find this room amusing because it's full of fake history -- the walls are decorated with pictures of Merlin, King Arthur and his knights, and their search for the Holy Grail. If there was a picture of Indiana Jones in here then it wouldn't look out of place. After that you head into the Royal Gallery and the Prince's Chamber.
It's tough to say which is the best room in the building, but if I had to plump for one then it would probably be the Royal Gallery. It's a long room in red and gold, and has two monumental paintings on each side. One depicts Nelson's moment of triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar (at the exact same moment he got shot), whilst the other shows the Duke of Wellington's meeting with Marshal Blucher at the Battle of Waterloo. If there are any French people in your group then they might want to look away -- these are the two battles which put paid to Napoleon. Looking down and around the rest of the walls are portraits of our most modern monarchs, from George I to our very own Queen.
The Prince's Chamber is another beauty, and depicts the Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII's wives, and a series of paintings about the Spanish Armada.
The House of Lords comes next, and you get to go right up to the golden throne and stand amongst the red leather seats. You guide is very careful to warn you about sitting down here -- only the peers are worthy of parking their bums on the seats and one lady in our group got told off for resting her weary feet. In fact, that is something that I should warn you about -- the tour is very heavy on your feet. The whole thing lasts for about 75 minutes and you can only sit down twice (for about two minutes each). So if you've got dodgy knees like me then be prepared for some aching bones at the end.
After the Lords you head into the Central Lobby where they conduct all of the interviews on the news. If you're a UK citizen then you're technically allowed to come here and demand to see your MP (as long as you have a genuine reason, of course). If you present yourself at the desk then he is duty bound to come down and say hello. If he's not in the building then he has to write you a letter to find out what's up. I wonder if that actually works in practice? I quite like the idea of getting my MP out of bed for some dopey problem that I could quite easily solve myself. We are the ones who pay their wages, after all!
Central Lobby is where the focus of the building changes from monarchs to politicians. Up until this point the paintings and statues have all been of kings and queens, but now you're looking at Prime Ministers. The best ones are reserved for the next room -- Members Lobby. Here you'll find big statues of Churchill, Lloyd George, Atlee and Thatcher, with little busts of everyone else up to John Major. They haven't got around to doing Blair, Brown or Cameron yet (no great loss, methinks).
After that you head into the House of Commons from the back, so you enter from behind the Speakers Chair where John Bercow sits. Then you get herded into the back benches amongst the green leather seats. Once again, if you dare to sit down then you will probably be shot -- so stay standing up. The big surprise about this chamber is its size: it's tiny! I have actually sat in the public gallery upstairs and watched them debating, and I've been to see Prime Minister's Questions as well, and when you are standing amongst the back benches it is very easy to imagine the opposition screaming at you from just metres away -- it must be very intimidating.
After that it's back to Westminster Hall and into a little shop selling all the usual books, cups and chocolates, and you can have a cup of tea in the cafe as well.
And thats it!
So now you're wondering whether it's actually worth doing... well... after my visit today I have decided to change my advice a little bit. In previous years I have recommend it without hesitation, but I'm going to suggest an alternative this time because there was a hell of a lot of restoration work going on today. And when I say a lot, I really do mean a lot. Practically every room either had some floor tiles up, benches out, statues missing, blank walls where pictures and paintings had been taken down... some of the rooms were like a building site. And the reason they choose to repair it all over the summer is obviously because all the MPs have gone away. This process is likely to continue for five years at least (they're even talking about closing the building down for a couple of years to get everything fixed). So whilst I still definitely recommend a visit, I'm now recommending that you skip the Summer Opening and go during 'term time' instead, on one of the Saturday tours (when the MPs are still there) -- because there's less likely to be building work going on. But don't let this put you off, because it's still a fantastic place to visit! Check out my separate review of a Saturday tour to see what it's like.
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