Although I have been to and through London, UK, numerous times, I had never visited the Houses of Parliament. I didn’t even know if you could. Well, you can — and you should!
You can take an audio tour on Saturdays and when parliament is not in session. So happens Boris Johnson “prorogued” parliament just as we arrived on our latest trip to Europe. “Prorogation” is where a session of parliament shuts up shop until it is officially opened for its next session.
He did this in an attempt to finagle a no-deal Brexit. This action was found to be illegal in short order, and parliament was back in session the very next day following our visit, so the timing worked out nicely for us. Thanks, Boris!
About a Thousand Years and Counting
Getting to Westminster is easy — just hop the Underground from wherever you are and get off at Westminster station. Then allow about 20 minutes for swimming upstream of in a sea of selfies and security while you try to figure out where to buy your tickets and where the entrance actually is.
You get a cellphone with a headset and away you go, at your own pace. It is very helpful to be able to refer to the screen for added information and directions as the audio tells you about what you are seeing. You can pause the presentation and go back if you missed something.
Westminster Hall is the where you start your tour. This is a huge hall with an awesome Gothic beamed ceiling. It has survived fires and both world wars. You can imagine centuries of royalty & courtiers, visiting dignitaries, statesmen and women all doing their hobnobbing and pomp & circumstancing.
Those Green Benches of Ire and Eloquence
For me, the one of the highlights of our whole trip was being able to actually walk into the Chamber of the House of Commons. History! Having often watched the UK Parliament in action on youtube, it was rather a thrill to see the actual room with the wood paneling and the hideous green benches. I walked right by the Speaker’s chair and the ponderous table in front of it, on which prime ministers slap their folders as they fend off questions during the PMQs.
It is much smaller than one imagines, and the green upholstery is shiny with wear. They cannot even seat all the 600+ members of parliament, since it was designed for far fewer.
Watching parliament in session reminds me of watching cricket when you don’t know the rules: you don’t know why the players are doing what they’re doing and every so often they shout and gesticulate and move about. Lots of different accents, too.
However, as with cricket, the more you understand the rules, the more absorbing the spectacle becomes. Sometimes you hear the most eloquent debate. Sometimes you watch quite vociferous rudeness and barracking, and you think satisfaction will be demanded and a duel scheduled forthwith. Sometimes the most arcane terminology from the Speaker causes everyone to heel most obediently. It is really fascinating to watch. And the use of language is far more impressive than watching C-SPAN any day of the week.
The House of Lords
Eventually I got around to the House of Lords. Like business class on an airplane, it has far posher seating to match the posher accents, upholstered in red. Lots of gold adorns the Canopy and Throne. Everybody there has a (stained glass) window seat on privilege. Very grand. “Lards” they are, don’t ye know?
There are other halls and galleries and Ye Olde Nooks & Crannies, but for me, the House of Commons was the best part. They just let visitors roam all over the place. Is this allowed in the US Capitol building? I don’t know. You weren’t allowed to sit on the benches, but you could wander betwixt and between. When next I watched the action on youtube, I was delighted to be able to exclaim, “I stood right there!”
Time For Tea, Of Course
After we had drunk our fill of British history, we scuttled into the Jubilee Cafe tea shop on the premises. It is in a daylight basement room with very cool arches, as you can see in this picture. The tea was passable, but the baked goods very good indeed.
Evensong at Westminster Abbey
It started pouring rain outside to beat the band, so we had another round of tea. When at last the rain let up, we went over to Westminster Abbey across the road. Unfortunately, it was closed to visitors for the day. Dagnabbit.
Except for worshippers! And evensong would be starting in 15 minutes. Bill can talk the talk (though he crosses himself in Greek Orthodox style) and I just followed him in. We were led into the church and ushered up to the front. No lingering over the tombs of Sir Isaac Newton or royalty or other luminaries or statesmen. That is apparently only for the paying customers.
The Westminster Abbey Choir filed in, from small boys to grown men, and they sang very nicely, as one would expect. I wondered if the boys have to practice and perform every single day. The program said prayers have been given at the Abbey every day for over a thousand years. A thousand years!
The ushers or junior clerics or whatever they’re called were clearly not thrilled with their job of shepherding the strays in. I think this was the equivalent of getting stuck with KP at camp. The big priests, too, were so lifeless, and the “lessons” were just dull recitations from the Bible (one was the loaves and fishes bit) and read so limply. I thought, no wonder this religion is dying in the UK — a thousand years of beating this dead horse with a wet noodle.
But the music was restful, and afterwards we walked through Pimlico to Victoria and came upon a superb Turkish restaurant called Kazan, which you should definitely seek out if you are in the area or in the mood for Turkish food.