Notes from Westminster

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Just as I am fascinated by the stories that people have to tell, so too am I enchanted by the history that Britain’s glorious buildings have locked deep within their walls. Not only are these landmarks testament to architectural glory and the skilled builders and craftsmen of the past, but they are symbolic of our heritage and identity. This was powerfully demonstrated to me earlier this week when I visited London and went on a tour of the Houses of Parliament.

Stepping inside this magnificent edifice, “…the mother of Parliaments”, was an incredible experience. The sheer size and scale of the Palace of Westminster – and the gothic grandeur certainly reflects its palatial status – is utterly overwhelming, from the towering, cathedral-like ceilings and windows, to the intricate designs and splendid colours of the tiles beneath your feet. You feel as if you are walking on hallowed ground and in the footsteps of history. Yet, the urgent footsteps of those around you are a constant reminder that this is a living, working building focused on the present and constantly looking to the future.

Aside from the time-honoured traditions of parliament and the momentous decisions made here, what captivated me was the splendour and lavish interior of the Palace. It was rebuilt by Charles Barry, and the interior designed by Augustus Pugin, after the original was destroyed by fire in the 1830s. The exceptional stained-glass windows; stone carvings; wood panelling; decorated walls and ceilings - resplendent in gold, green and red; the paintings and murals depicting figures and scenes from British history are astonishing - a feast for the eyes.

With both the Commons and the Lords in session later that day, time was precious on our tour. Our knowledgeable guide met us in the oldest part of the Palace, the spectacular Westminster Hall, with its amazing hammer-beam roof (the largest in the world), the setting for many historic events including coronation feasts, the lying in state of monarchs and prominent parliamentarians, together with the trials of Charles I, Sir Thomas More and Guy Fawkes. We moved on through St. Stephen's Hall, passing the statue that a suffragette chained herself to in 1909, to the famous Central Lobby with its 300-foot tower (pictured). This is where television political correspondents often broadcast their reports from, but our eyes were drawn towards the extraordinary vaulted ceiling decorated with glittering mosaics and the mosaic panels showing the four patron saints of the home nations.

Making our way round the Princes Chamber, Royal Gallery, Norman Porch and Robing Room, I noticed the heady aroma of Parliament - a marvellous blend of furniture polish, leather and wood. Entering the House of Lords you are immediately struck by the intentionally opulent colour scheme of red, from the Peer's benches and the Lord Speaker's Woolsack (the latter reflecting the importance of the wool trade to the country in past centuries), to the exquisitely decorated, gilded mahogany throne where the Queen sits at the State Opening of Parliament.

Many traditions and rituals surround the State Opening including the arrival of Black Rod in the House of Commons to summon MPs to hear the Queen's Speech in the Lords. If you look on the door from the Members Lobby to the Chamber of the Commons you can see how repeated knocks from Black Rod's staff have worn away part of the right-hand door. Renowned for his Queen's Speech quips is the Labour MP Dennis Skinner (nicknamed "the Beast of Bolsover") and, later, as we stood in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher's statue, our guide pointed him out to us as he walked through the Members Lobby.

The interior of the Commons is far less lavish than the Lords, but no less impressive in its impact. During the war the Chamber was bombed and the architect Giles Gilbert Scott (famous for Battersea and Bankside Power Stations, and our beloved red telephone boxes) took charge of the rebuilding. What amazed me was how much smaller it seemed than on television; apparently it's difficult to fit all the MPs in the Chamber. As a point of local interest, I was delighted to discover that the Speaker's chair was made by the firm of H. H. Martyn from Evergreen and This England's home town of Cheltenham. For those of us on the tour, gazing at the rows of green benches - arranged under the ever-watchful gaze of the Press and Visitors Galleries above - the true significance of Parliament was powerfully felt. This is the place where we are represented; it shapes our lives and the nation.

It was a memorable visit, but all too brief. As I left, I took time to reflect and remember on Westminster Bridge and to be grateful, yet again, for democracy and freedom.

Photo: Jorge Royan

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