House of Commons -- Public Gallery review
Apparently the best things in life are free. That's what they say, anyway (the people with money). But in this case it happens to be true: because you can come to the Houses of Parliament and sit in the House of Commons for nothing. You don't even need a ticket or any ID. And yes, I know that sounds totally ridiculous, but trust me when I say it's true. You might have to wait an hour to get inside, but once you've bagged yourself a seat you can basically stay for as long as you like. [Note: You do require a ticket if you want to visit between 12 noon and 1 PM on a Wednesday, because that's Prime Minister's Questions. Check out my separate review for details.]
Whenever I visit the Houses of Parliament I always like to begin my day with a little sit-down in Parliament Square, to watch the flock of pigeons defecate on the statues' heads. This is a great reminder not to think too highly of our politicians -- these people are not role models. Just because we pay them sixty grand a year doesn't mean they deserve it. When you're sitting up in the public gallery you won't see people cheering and clapping and blowing kisses at them. People don't swoon at their heroes like kids do at a pop concert. The seats will be full of people peering down at the performing MPs, trying to spot a few famous faces off the telly.
When you're ready find the visitor entrance, which is roughly halfway along the front side of Parliament, and ask the nice lady at the barrier if you can "go inside the House of Commons". She will then give you a piece of green card (nicely laminated -- very hi-tech) which you can wave at the gun cop on the gate. He will then deliver a totally redundant speech about all the things you're not allowed to take inside: scissors, swords, knives, guns, bombs, ballistic missiles, tactical nuclear weapons, etc. Then you get a little visitor's pass to hang around your neck and pass through some airport style security. After you've negotiated all of that you can finally head into Westminster Hall.
Westminster Hall is a thousand years old. And I mean that literally -- it is genuinely a thousand years old! It is probably the most historic room in England. I've already written about it ten thousand times, though, in my previous reviews of the Houses of Parliament tours, so I won't bore you with the same stuff again. Just head straight to the end and turn left up the stairs. This will take you into St. Stephens Hall. There should be a bloke at the end who will swap your green card for a piece of paper, and show you where to head next (through the door and turn left, and then up the stairs to the Strangers Gallery). If you're unlucky then you might have to join a lengthy queue in St. Stephen's Hall, which might add on anything from five minutes to an hour. They don't have very many seats in the public gallery, you see, and people can basically stay for as long as they like, so if it's already full then you just have to wait patiently for a space to open up -- which could take ages. But I've been here five or six times and I've never had to wait longer than thirty minutes.
Don't be too worried about the queuing, because from the moment you step into Westminster Hall you will be immensely impressed by the decor. You can trust me on this. I know I'm rather biased because I love London, but if the decoration inside Parliament doesn't knock your socks off then you may as well just go home now. Even if you only get as far as St. Stephen's Hall and bail out because of the queue, I would still recommend it a visit -- that is how good it is.
The first time that you enter the House of Commons is one of those highlights you'll remember forever. It will probably mean much more to a Brit, because they're used to seeing this room on the news every night, but it's still going to be a memorable moment for a tourist. Put it this way: I've been here loads of times now, and I still get a little thrill whenever I step through the door.
The public gallery is at the back of the Commons, looking down upon the MPs heads. You can see the Speaker's chair directly ahead, the bewigged clerks below him, the front benches where the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition sit, and the central table where all the books are stacked up, but you can't see anything further south than that.
Unfortunately this is where it starts to get a bit boring -- because you have to sit here listening to the politicians. There are only nineteen MPs present in the chamber today, none of whom I recognise, and all I've heard so far is John Bercow droning on about Parliamentary privilege. It's quite warm in here and the MPs are just lounging around waiting for the teacher to stop talking. One guy is happily flapping his tie back and forth over his shoulder. Another lady is lazily arranging the folds of her skirt across the top of her knee. Another Labour guy has spent the last two minutes staring up at the forest of microphones hanging from the ceiling as he waits for Bercow to finish (he's never going to finish). I've never noticed those before actually: there must be a hundred of the things just dangling from the top like streamers. Hmm... interesting.
Is Bercow still talking? That guy certainly loves to talk. That must be why they call him the Speaker: because that's all he ever does.
This is our government. These are the people who run the country. Sitting here fighting off their pins and needles by making little circular shapes with their ankles. The green seats around them are strewn with plastic folders and typed-up letters.
When you finally get tired of trying not to fall asleep then you should definitely seek out the little gift shop and cafe. You can find them through a little door at the end of Westminster Hall. They sell some nice Parliamentary souvenirs in there.
Note: the last time I came here they confiscated your camera and mobile phone before you entered the chamber, but they seem to have relaxed the rules now. They still confiscate your camera but they let you keep hold of your phone (even though it has a camera on it). They even let you type on it whilst you're sitting in the gallery -- but they'll kick you out if you start taking phone calls and snapping photos. Photography is still a definite no-no.
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