Houses of Parliament:
an Ipswich Society trip, 4 August 2014
By coach to Westminster, arriving before 11; luckily there wasn't the gridlock that had affected our Mayfair trip in March. With time to spare, I looked at the two Battle of Britain memorials on the Embankment, with their dramatic sculptures. Then to St Margaret's Church, the MPs' church, to view the numerous memorials to parliamentarians over the centuries and round Dean's Yard, home to Westminster School and the Abbey Choir School.
I passed the long faÃ§ade of the Church House, opened by the king and queen in 1940; the United Nations held its early meetings there in '45-'46. Over the busy road to the Supreme Court, Listed Grade II*, neo-Gothic style, built in 1913 and internally renovated in 2009. This is the highest court in the U.K. hearing civil and criminal cases of the greatest public importance. Lunch in the cafe was a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle of the tourist-thronged streets.
We meet outside the Palace of Westminster, so-called because in medieval times a royal palace stood here until a major fire in 1512, after which Henry VIII moved up the road to what became Whitehall Palace. Our knowledgeable guide met us in Westminster Hall part of which, built by William Rufus, dates from 1099. It is the largest surviving medieval hall in northern Europe: the roof spans 67 feet and 80% of the splendid hammer-beam roof is original.
Our guide led us through the entire building to start our tour at the Royal Staircase. After another major fire in 1834 Charles Barry, with Pugin as interior designer, rebuilt the palace as a more purpose-built structure. We stood at the head of the staircase, which the queen ascends on her way to the Robing Room and the State Opening of Parliament.
The House of Lords half of the Palace is Pugin at his most opulent and Prince Albert also had a say in the decorative scheme. The Royal Gallery leads through to the House of Lords Chamber (red leather seats), where the eye is drawn to the gilded throne and surrounds: 23 carat gold! Fit for a queen (or king) indeed! The chamber, like that of the Commons, is smaller than one imagines and Lords must sometimes be at very close quarters.
Through the Peers' Lobby and corridor to Central Lobby where many people meet and lobby their MPs; this is the hub of the two houses, architecturally and personally. Through the Commons Corridor and Members' Lobby to the House of Commons Chamber. In contrast to the Lords, this chamber is restrained in its decoration (bombed in WWII and rebuilt). It has green leather seats and a public gallery with a glass security screen. As before, this chamber is smaller than expected and crowded debates must be literally 'heated'. The word 'Commons' is derived from 'communities'; originally MPs came here to represent their own communities, as distinct from the Lords being summoned here by their king.
Returning via St Stephen's Hall, formerly a chapel, it was the site of great parliamentary events from around 1550 until 1834 (the year of the fire). The wall frescoes depict The Building of Britain; one panel shows our own Cardinal Wolsey in action. Back to the Hall to thank our guide and get a welcome tea and cake after an engrossing and educational tour. A coachful of members owe their thanks to Caroline Markham for organising such a fabulous outing and to our Soames driver.