Houses of Parliament -- Saturday tour review
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I'm back at the Houses of Parliament today. I haven't been here for a while so I thought I'd better just check the politicians are behaving themselves. You know what they are like... if we don't keep our beady eyes on them they start getting drunk and having fist fights.
You might be under the impression that you can only have a tour of parliament during the Summer Opening, but that's not true. There are actually three more ways to sneak a peek inside. The first way is to stand as an MP and get 50,000 people to vote for you at the next general election. But granted, that is probably too much hassle if you're only here on holiday. The second way is to write a letter to your local MP and ask for an invite. He is then duty bound to stick your name down for a free guided tour. (And I swear to god that is true! It's called a Member's Tour, because it's sponsored by a Member of Parliament.) But that's not much use if you live abroad because you won't have a local MP. So the third way, and definitely the easiest way, is to just go along on a Saturday for a tour. I probably should have told you about that one first, ah well.
The MPs don't like working at the weekends you see (or during the week either, if your name is Malcolm Rifkind), so they let the public have a walk around instead. All you've got to do is buy a ticket online before you go -- easy-peasy. Or you can get one on the same day from the ticket office at the front of Portcullis House -- but then you are running the risk that it will already be full up.
I've never been on a Saturday tour before, and I'm curious as to whether it's identical to the one at the Summer Opening. I've got a sneaking suspicion that it is... but I will let you know. I am standing outside at the moment waiting to go in. The entrance is directly opposite the back end of Westminster Abbey, where all the gun cops gather around discussing who to shoot. Luckily I've got a very angelic-looking face so they let me in.
The first thing you have to do once you get inside is get undressed. Seriously -- I'm not even joking. The security is super tight and they make you take your coat and belt off so they can put them through the scanner. So if you've got baggy trousers then watch out, because they are going to fall down around your ankles. After that you head into Westminster Hall for a sit down. This is the room with a hammer-beam roof that dates back a thousand years. Remember to check out the plaques on the floor as well because lots of people miss those -- they mark out the spots where famous events took place, like the trial of Thomas More and King Charles I.
After that you get frogmarched through the palace at a thousand miles an hour to the Norman Porch. Then she slowly makes her way back describing all the rooms in detail. I have already described the rooms about a billion times before in my review of the Summer Opening, so I won't bore you with the same stuff again.
Because I've been here plenty of times before, none of the rooms are new to me, but they still manage to knock my socks off every time I see them. I think this is the fourth time I've traipsed through the building, but I still get a little thrill whenever I walk into the House of Commons. There can't be a person on earth who isn't secretly thinking wow as he's walking through that chamber. This is the place were stuff happens. You see this room on the news at PMQs, and pass two feet from the actual spot where the PM stands -- how can you not get a little thrill from that? If that doesn't float your boat then how about walking three feet from the golden throne where the Queen sits at the opening of Parliament? Or standing under the bomb-damaged arch with Winston Churchill glaring down at you with his hands on hips?
The guide I had today was probably the best I've ever had. It was very detailed like a school lesson, and she explained a a lot of the workings of Parliament that I've never heard before. It will probably bore your kids silly though (it bored a lot of the adults I was with too), but it's very good if you're interested in politics.
The tour turned out to be identical to the one at the Summer Opening, with one minor change -- you get taken into a room where the Lords hold a few of their meetings. It's called the Moses Room and has a few huge paintings on the wall, but it's nothing special. She also allowed us to take some photos in St. Stephen's Hall, which was a bonus (you are usually only allowed to take photos in Westminster Hall).
They've built a new gift shop too, which wasn't here the last time I came. If you've ever had a cup of tea in Jubilee Cafe (that downstairs room off Westminster Hall) then it's down there, next door.
I would definitely recommend doing a Saturday tour over the Summer Opening, because even though it is still pretty busy, it's a lot quieter than the summer one (which is packed solid like sardines). That means that the guide can take a bit more time explaining stuff because the rooms don't get so crowded with other groups.
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