Royal Courts of Justice -- Guided Tour review
I turned up an hour early and of course I'm soaked to the skin. What is going on with the weather lately? It's raining every day and night. Where's all the water coming from? I turned up at the Royal Courts of Justice and I had to squelch past security, dripping through the scanners like a fish out of water.
It's quite a sight once you get inside. The first thing you see is the colossal entrance hall and it's like a cathedral. It's almost worth committing a crime just to come inside. Big stone architecture, stained glass windows towering three stories above your head. Huge oil paintings of long dead judges staring down at you from the walls in their gowns and wigs.
There's no one around today. I think it must be a holiday or something because there's no one about. No crimes committed today... or maybe no criminals have been caught. There's just a few members of the public ambling around the place. Are they on trial for something? They sure do look guilty. But the way I'm dressed at the moment they probably think the same thing of me. If I sit here too long the guards might snap me up and cart me off downstairs.
I've still got half an hour to go so I seek out the cafe. I suppose this is where the criminals come for their final cup of freedom tea. But this place is empty too. It's just a little pokey place but it's worth seeking out for the route — you have to walk down the cathedral-like nave and through the big double doors into what looks like a crypt. It's got all those thick carved columns about five feet apart, holding up the low vaulted roof. It would be a great place to have some tombs but of course it's empty. As is the cafe. As is everywhere, in fact. This place is like a ghost town today.
I actually used to work in a court, when I was still young and good looking (a long time ago now). I was one of those trainee stenographers and had to note down down every little noise in court. You needed fingers tap tap tapping away at the speed of light but boy was it boring as hell. The most boring job I've ever had. I think the most interesting case I ever had was some bloke who stole a biscuit from Tesco's. But I'm guessing the crimes they have in this place are a lot better than that — murderers, explosions, terrorist plots, crimes against humanity... real fun stuff. It makes you wonder who'll be walking (or stalking) the corridors. Pol Pot? Idi Amin? I might brush shoulders with a mass murderer whilst the guide is pointing out some pictures -- I'd better be on my guard. Luckily I know some moves in case some shifty low-life gets too close for comfort.
While I'm sitting here waiting for the tour to start I get stared at by the kids and mums strolling past. They must think that I'm on trial for something. Don't walk too close to that bloke, they are thinking as they nudge their kids away... we don't know what he's done. But I must admit that I'm pretty scruffy sitting here in my fingerless gloves and two-week old beard. I probably deserve to be locked up for something.
I have a good look around the entrance hall. It's reminiscent of the Natural History Museum, I think. Imagine that place in grey, instead of brown, and with judges instead of dinosaurs. There are some really impressive statues dotted around the alcoves, and colossal paintings of court life hanging on the walls. All the signs are written in mock-gothic script too, it's like a medieval Disneyland.
Our guide is a nice lady called Pat who has been working here for years and years. She's basically like your long-lost mum, grey-haired and friendly, and she certainly knows her stuff. She marched us off to one of the courtrooms and sat us down, and that's where I am now, secretly writing this while I'm pretending to listen. We are half an hour into the tour now and my attention is starting to wane. It's not so much a tour... it's more like a lecture. She's got a nice conversational style and everyone is free to ask some questions, but it's heavy going. She's gone through the history of the place, the building and the architecture, and now she's motoring on through the court process and function of the judiciary. It's like a university lecture.
The court room is very nice though. It's all wood-panelled walls, vaulted ceilings, stone gallery balconies and old bookcases filled with leather-spined legal tomes. It's got a hanging chandelier and old ticking clocks. It's like I've walked straight onto the set of Rumple of the Bailey.
It turns out that they don't do murders here after all. This is a Civil Court, so it's all divorces, adoptions, libel cases and damages, with a bit of bankruptcy, asylum and deportation cases thrown in. So I've learnt something, at least. I've learnt that it's safe to walk the corridors without getting jumped on by a mass murderer.
... I do like Pat, and she is a good guide, but this speech is going on and on and on. When is the actual tour going to start? I'm guessing that when people come on a tour of the Royal Courts of Justice, then what they really want to do is go on a tour of the building. Not listen to Pat banging on about everyone she's met in the few decades she's worked here. Eighty minutes later we finally get up and have a walk around. Eighty minutes! If I knew it was going to take that long then I would have come in my pyjamas and had a kip. So be advised -- you have to sit through nearly an hour and a half of monologue before you get to see some of the building. And even then, it's just a quick half hour and a few rooms.
The actual 'tour' bit of the tour consists of some corridors, a moderately impressive painted room, and then up to a balcony where they've got a collection of judges wigs and robes, and then back down to the main hall again... and the crypt (which we already saw when we had a cup of tea). And that's basically it. The only courtroom you see is the one where you've been sitting for the last eighty minutes listening to her legal lecture.
Eighty minutes of talking, followed by a quick thirty minutes of tour. But hey, it didn't cost a lot, and the guide was a genuinely lovely lady, so you can't be too critical. But take my advice... unless you've got a special interest in learning about the judiciary it makes more sense to just come in and walk around yourself. It's a public building and they provide a little leaflet at the front desk for a self-guided tour. That way you can spend a nice hour walking around at your leisure, taking your time to see all the stuff, without having to wade through eighty minutes of school lessons wondering when the home time bell will ring.
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