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Look up to famous statesmen in Parliament Square
People who have read my travel pages will already know that I adore sculpture and municipal art, so it's no great surprise that Parliament Square in Westminster is one of my favourite spots in London for 'sculpture spotting'.
If you are immortalised in Parliament Square, then you really know that you've ascended to the rarified ranks of the Great and the Good - the only snag is that you usually have to be dead to do so! The current roll call includes British heavyweights from yesteryear such as Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Benjamin Disraeli, Viscount Palmerston and Sir Robert Peel as well as a few statesmen from the Former Colonies, including Abraham Lincoln. Surprisingly there are also two South Africans: Nelson Mandela - the only one to be commemorated during his lifetime - and Field Marshal Jan Smuts (whose picture is shown here).
I was particularly intrigued by Smuts' presence, as I believe that he is one of the most influential world statesmen of the early 20th century. He was one of the primary architects of the League of Nations (the forerunner to the United Nations) and was one of Britain's staunchest allies before he was voted out of office after World War II and replaced by the Nationalist government that would eventually morph into the apartheid regime. Above all, Smuts was a dedicated Anglophile who would have been chuffed to know that his statue stands outside the Mother of Parliaments!
For anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating man, see my travel tips on his house in Irene near Pretoria (which is a must for anyone visiting South Africa who has an interest in this period).
Would-be photographers and those who'd like to get a good look at these statues from all angles may be frustrated to discover that the grassed section of Parliament Square around which the statues are displayed has been cordoned off and at the time of writing (January 2011) it was only possible to walk along the pavement. This is to prevent the protestors who have been camped out opposite Parliament (protesting Britain's involvement in various armed conflicts) from migrating onto the grass, and as they've been there for several years already, they're unlikely to be going away anytime soon.
The Palace of Westminster
This home of "Big Ben" (or The Clock Tower), is a neo-Gothic wonder from the mid 19th century, and it’s full of houses: namely the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Reserve ahead to watch antics during Parliament sessions.
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Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament, stands on the banks of the Thames in the London borough of Westminster. The palace is the seat of the British Parliament, which consists of the House of Commons (House of Commons, similar to the Dutch Lower House of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives) and the Upper House (House of Lords, similar to the Dutch Senate or the Belgian Senate). Since 1987, together with Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church on the World Heritage List of UNESCO.
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Barry’s and Pugin’s Neogothic masterpiece
When I searched the internet for detailed information about Palace of Westminster’s façade, I found a most fascinating article called An Eloquent Sermon in Stone by David John Watkin (Professor of History of Architecture, Cambridge). His introductory words are so perfectly describing my intention with this tip that I simply let him speak first:
Quote David Watkin:
“Architecture is more than mere engineering, aiming not just to make buildings stand up but make them speak – and, at its best, to make them speak eloquently of profound matters. No public building exemplifies that power better than Sir Charles Barry’s Houses of Parliament, whose architecture delivers virtually a sermon in stone to the British nation about its deepest value, its ancient culture”.
(please make sure you read the whole article if you share a similar fondness of older, talking, buildings as I do).
Well, the Palace of Westminster had a certain fascination for me ever since I saw it back in 1977. This time however I took my time and walked around it quite often, at least as far as I could get. I deeply regret that I don’t know that much about British history as it would have been helpful to understand what I saw. Sir Barry created a masterpiece with this façade. He created it in Perpendicular style, the typical English version of late Gothic, which, to be honest, I really like better than our continental version of Gothic. It is fascinating to look at the eastern part (the one which faces river Thames). At first glance it seems very much symmetrical, but it is not. The three towers are of different size, height and style, and the middle part is a bit raised compared to the sides. But to me this looks even more harmonic than if it would be completely symmetrical. I’ve read that this eastern part has sculptures of more than 300 kings, queens and saints, but it is difficult to get details, unless you would hire a boat and drive along slowly. The southern façade (towards Victoria Gardens) is easier to admire. Photo 3 shows in my opinion how this perpendicular harmony was created: one statue in the middle, flanked by two others, but the middle one has a higher spire on the guarding roof, which points into the next “rectangular block” above this section. Sir Barry and Pugin gave very much attention to the elaborateness of all the statues, as it can easily be seen in the main photo. Between the statues are Tudor roses and initials of Queen Victoria (Victoria Regina) all over. On the western façade (the outer walls of House of Lords) the porticullis and heads of earls and others dominate (photo 4).
So I can only highly recommend to take your time and walk around the long building to take in these amazing details of the façade. I will certainly do so next time, and by then I hopefully know more about the history to understand what I see. I often thought about how Sir Barry and Pugin worked on the plans, in days where no CAD was available. And from this point of view, their work is even more outstanding, given the huge amount of drawings and sketches they did, which alltogether lead to this incredibly beautiful building.
Coordinates on GoogleEarth:
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Symbol of England..
BIG BEN.. and the house of parliament have been symbolizing London for years. If you want to know the history, google it. But if you want to witness the beauty, I'd suggest go check out yourself. My pictures may help you a bit.
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Ponder on democracy at the Mother of Parliaments
The Palace of Westminster (otherwise known as the Houses of Parliament) is perhaps the most recognisable building in London and one of my favourites. Why 'Houses' of Parliament? Well, the British Parliament comprises two houses: the lower House of Commons of elected representatives and the upper House of Lords, peopled with hereditary and life peers.
The current building is a flamboyant confection by Sir Charles Barry in the Perpendicular Gothic style(!) and surprisingly recent, with the exterior having only been completed in 1870 (and much of the interior much later than that). Like many Central London buildings, the Houses of Parliament have been cleaned in recent years to remove accumulated surface grime and I think that the honey coloured limestone - a pleasant counterpoint to the rather stark white Portland Stone which has been used for the facades of many of the Whitehall buildings - is beautiful, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon, when the masonry seems to glow in the gentle light.
There has been a building on this site since the mid 11th century, and the earliest surviving building of the Westminster Complex is the adjacent Westminster Abbey. Westminster Palace was initially a royal residence that accommodated a Model Parliament (comprising some members of the clergy and nobility) from as early as 1295, although their primary function was to impose taxes rather than govern - some would argue that not much has changed!
The Palace has changed dramatically over the centuries due to several devastating fires and repeatedly extended and remodelling to adapt to its changing function. Parts of the medieval structure such as the lovely Undercroft Chapel still survive - despite the best efforts of Guy Fawkes and the other ill-fated participants in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (who were hung, drawn and quartered for their pains) - but most of the building postdates the catastrophic fire of 1834.
The Palace has three towers. The tallest is the Victoria Tower, which is equipped with a flagstaff: if the Royal Standard (the Queen's personal flag) is flying, then the monarch is in the House, and if the Union Jack is flying, Parliament is in session. The Bell Tower at the other end of the building houses five bells, including the largest, Big Ben (whose distinctive 'boing' strikes on the hour). If there is a light on in the Bell Tower, then it is indication that the House is sitting - rumour has it that this convention was introduced so that Queen Victoria to make sure that her Government were putting in the requisite number of hours! The Octagonal Tower is the smallest of the three towers, and was initially installed as a ventilation feature (presumably to vent all that hot air???), cited by architects as "the first occasion when mechanical services had a real influence on architectural design". However, the design was a failure and the tower was eventually was demoted to a decorative feature.
When I was at university, my Byronic boyfriend and I often take late night strolls down to the Thames and play Pooh Sticks off Westminster Bridge - it sounds very lame looking back, but in the throes of young love, it seemed wildly romantic! If the weather was cold and we didn't yet feel like going home, we would check to see whether the light was on in the Bell Tower, and, if so, we would submit ourselves to a cursory security check and then slip into the Visitors' Gallery of the House of Commons to watch the late night debate in the surprisingly small Chamber. This was usually much less dramatic than it sounds, with MPs droning on about some dull topic (and in truth, it was more amusing to spot which members were snoozing on the benches) but it was interesting to see parliamentary process in action. In the post 9/11 world, things are very different, and although it is still possible to visit, the process is a lot more security-conscious (although still free): see the website below for more details.
People Of A Certain Age (ie. middle aged people like me!) will not be able to look at the roof of Westminster Palace without conjuring up a pivotal scene from my all time favourite BBC series: 'House of Cards' - people who have seen it will know exactly what I mean, and I won't spoil it for those who have yet to have the pleasure. This brilliant pitch black commentary on the life and times of a fictional British MP Francis Urquhart (whose initials were far from accidental) was written by Michael Dobbs, Margaret Thatcher's former Chief of Staff and is a biting commentary on Westminster and what one has to do to survive and thrive in this viciously competitive environment. This series (and its sequels, 'To Play The King' and 'The Final Cut') are an absolute must for those wanting to gain an insight into the British parliamentary system and cynical British humour!
Sharp-eyed travellers (and other know alls) will also be awarded brownie points for noting the similarity between the Houses of Parliament in London and the House of Parliament in Budapest whose architect Imre Steindl who was inspired by Westminster Palace!
The Jewel Tower
Many visitors to Westminster probably miss the Jewel Tower, but it is one of only two surviving buildings from the original medieval Palace of Westminster. It was built in 1365-6 for King Edward III by Henry Yevele, the 'Surveyor of the King's Masonry' and was originally intended as a private treasury.
It was originally surrounded by a moat, to give greater security, and also provide fish for the King's table.
From 1621 the tower was used to store parliamentary records, and later it was used by the Board of Trade's standards department, which tested standard weights and measures.
Nowadays, there is an exhibition inside telling the story of the building, and a small cafe.
Open daily, 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. Admission is £3.20.
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Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
Located on the River Thames, the Houses of Parliament building is one of the most interesting buildings in a city full of mostly uninteresting buildings. It is one of London’s most recognizable buildings probably due to its clock tower which houses the 13 ton bell, Big Ben. Most people think the clock tower is Big Ben, which is not the case. Currently only UK residents can tour the clock tower. Unfortunately while we were there, you could not tour the Parliament building either so we just walked around outside.
During the Summer Opening, UK residents and overseas visitors can buy tickets to tour the Houses of Parliament. It is arranged during the summer recess, when Parliament does not sit and Members work away from Westminster. Tours run from Monday to Saturday inclusive, but not on Sunday or Bank Holidays. Tours take about 75 minutes and include the Commons and Lords Chambers, the Queen's Robing Room, the Royal Gallery and Westminster Hall.
Opening hours Saturdays throughout the year:
9.15am to 4.30pm
Summer Opening: 29th July to 3rd September 2011 and 19th September to 1st October 2011
Ticket prices Adult: £15.00
Tickets are available on the day of tour from the Ticket Office located next to the Jewel Tower in Old Palace Yard (opposite the Houses of Parliament). However, visitors are advised to pre-book tours in advance online through ticketmaster or by phoning 0844 847 1672.
Tour times: July/August: Mon, Tues, Fri, Sat 9.15am-4.30pm, Wednesday and Thursday 1.15-4.30pm. September: Mon, Fri, Sat 9.15am-4.30pm. Tues, Wed, Thurs 1.15-4.30pm.
Security measures include searches prior to entry. Cell phones must be turned off, and no cameras/photos except in Westminster Hall.
Please note that all visitor information is correct as of this update.
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Houses of Parliament Summer Opening
Each summer (from August 1st to September 30th) the Houses of Parliament are open to the public with gioded tours operating every few minutes. Tours last 75 minutes. Foreign language tours are also available in French, Spanish, German and Italian. You will be able to see the historic building, including the chambers of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
History of the Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster was the principal residence of the kings of England from the middle of the 11th century until 1512.
In 1834 the Palace was burned down. This fire destroyed almost all of the Palace except Westminster Hall, the crypt of St Stephen's Chapel, the adjacent cloisters and the Jewel Tower. The present Houses of Parliament were built over the next 30 years. They were the work of the architect Sir Charles Barry. The design incorporated Westminster Hall and the remains of St Stephen's Chapel.
The House of Commons Chamber was destroyed in a German air attack in 1941. It was rebuilt after the Second World War, taking care to preserve the essential features of Barry's building - the architect was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The new Chamber was completed in 1950.
Layout of the Palace of Westminster
After coming through the public entrance St Stephen's Entrance, the approach to the Central Lobby of the Palace is through St Stephen's Hall from St Stephen's Porch at the southern end of Westminster Hall. Central Lobby, a large octagonal hall, is the centrepiece of the Palace. The Central Lobby is a great masterpiece of Victorian art.
From the Central Lobby, corridors lead northward to the House of Commons Lobby and Chamber and southward to the House of Lords. Beyond the House of Lords are the ceremonial rooms used at the State Opening of Parliament - the Queen's Robing Room and the Royal Gallery - reached by a separate entrance under the Victoria Tower.
NB: no photography is possible on the tour
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Big Ben and the houses of Parliament
When looking at the london skyline in pictures or when you're here, you will usually always see one thing... BIG BEN...
or shall i say what people refer to as Big Ben. People refer to the huge Gothic clock tower attached to the houses of parliament as Big Ben but in fact it's the bell inside it that has this name. The bell is around 9 feet in diameter 7ft 6inches in height and weights almost 14000 kg.
The bell was cast in whitechapel foundry which can be visited today as a museum, they still have the original bell cast on view.
For those of you that are Canadian and American the Liberty Bell was cast here in 1752 and the great bell of montreal was also cast here.
The original specification for the clock was to be accurate to within one second and checked every day against the caesium clock in grenwich where a record was kept. This was deemed impossible by clockmakers at the time but through perseverence it was created, and remains a symbol of GMT in london.
For new year this is the clock we go by.
The houses of parliament, are supposedly owned by the people, as we have the power to put people in this building and therefore any citizen of the UK may apply for a tour, or to be allowed to watch the proceedings of parliament when it's in session.
Unfortunately non-residents can no longer take a tour of this building unless it's during the Summer opening period, which is august 1st to september 30th, the ticket office is open from mid July, and they sell out fast!
Parliament - Highly Fascinating Tour
Being that I have been called a C-SPAN junkie (government junkie) and have watched many hours of UK Parliamentary debate, I absolutely had to go to the Houses of Parliament. The tour was unbelieveably great. The granduer of the interior of the building was quite awe-inspiring. The guides are quite knowledgeable of various aspects of the building and many of the historical figures that walked the halls.The history lessons provided were quite fascinating. Walking into the Chambers of Lords and Commons brought tingles to me. The chambers are quite beautiful without being gaudy. The thought of being in the place where so many great and/or influencial people roamed was exciting to me.
While I was in London, there were many protests regarding the vote to ban fox hunting. This was a highly emotional topic and one that many Brits take seriously. There were even a few men who broke into the Chamber of Commons during a lightly-attended debate and ran through the room.
Having spoken to a friend prior to going, I knew that it was restricted to certain days & times. Furthermore, non-UK residents are only permitted to visit during the Summer Openings (begin Aug - begin Oct). Make sure you plan ahead and book a tour before arriving (although not every tour may be completely full). Also, by booking ahead, you can select the time on the day you prefer. This helps if you have a tight schedule. To view dates of opening and further information, visit the Parliament Summer Openings page. It will also have the link to purchase.
The ticket booth is on the north side of the building across the street in a small green opening.
Cost: £7 for adults
Barry’s and Pugin’s Neogothic clock dream
No doubt, Big Ben is the most famous clock, erm.. bell, in the whole world. I already listened to its sound from my very early days on the planet, because my grandmother had a sideboard clock which rang quarters and hour with this characteristing ding-dong (these clocks were very famous in mid last century’s Germany and later). Maybe that’s why I always liked the sound. And I simply fell in love with the whole, clock and bell tower when I first stood in front of it 1977. No wonder that anytime I am in London, I am automatically drawn there, just to listen and make sure that it is still there.
The story of Big Ben is interesting to read. George Mears, bellfounder at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, cast it in 1858 and a year later it was ringing for the first time. But, as a too heavy hammer was used to ring it, it cracked. Instead of replacing it, they just rotated it, drilled a hole above the crack and Big Ben continued its work for the kingdom. Whitechapel Bell Foundry is still exisiting, by the way, produces many bells of every size and can be visited (Saturdays at 10 am and 2 pm, entrance fee £10, only on pre-booking). Big Ben, by the way, has 4 little "sisters", the ones that chime the quarters.
I discovered to my utmost delight that UK Parliament has registered and uploaded many photos on Flickr, which are transformed into excellent slide shows on
Big Ben virtual tour, with explanatory virtual visits to the ground floor and additional 7 floors within the tower. Make sure to view in fullscreen!! And make also sure to visit their site on Flickr: UK Parliament on Flickr page. The videos include Big Ben chiming 12 o’clock (01:21 min), the pendulum bob (00:11 min) and the fly fans (00.26 min) to regulate the descent of the weights. Fantastic to watch!! The 51 photos include the crack I mentioned above. Thank you, UK Parliament!! What an excellent work, as it really enables us to virtually visit the bell and the tower in every aspect. Make sure you take your time and watch all.
Oh yes, visits to the tower are possible. UK Parliament’s website describes the details. Tours are free but you must be in perfect health condition, as there is no lift, only 334 stairs to the top. It seems that only Britons can visit it, arranged through their local MP. However, I’ve read that overseas visitors might be able to arrange a visit through their embassies in London. It is definitely worth a try.
The tours, by the way, lead up as high as to Aryton light, which is the famous light visible in the dark when Parliament is still at work, in place since 1885 and named after A.S. Aryton MP, the first Commissioner of works. Another fascinating story is the one of the old pennies: to regulate the clock old pennies are used. One old penny lets the clock gain 2/5 th of a second per day. Fascinating!!
The tower also has a prison room, well, more of an incarceration room, where MPs could be sent when they misbehaved. Charles Bradlaugh was sent here in 1880, because as atheist he didn’t want to take the Official Oath on the bible and Emily Pankhurst, Britain’s famous feminist, as well in early 20th century.
But even if the bell is fascinating, the façade is even more so. I cannot get enough of this delicate work, Pugin and Barry realised when they designed the belltower. Don’t just look at it from far away, but take your time to discover the many details ot the top. Look at photo 4: there is a frieze of many black/green/gold coats of arms, among them the chained porticullis (symbol of the Palace of Westminster), Scotland’s thistle and Wales’ daffodil . At the four edges is the unified white-red rose of Lancaster and York and Northern Ireland’s shamrock on the top of the little spires . And the clock face itself is magnificent as well, 312 panes of opaque glass form each of the four clock faces. From UK Parliament’s photos I learned that one of these panes is movable for maintenance. And if you look closely at photo 2, indeed the pane between 6 and 7 is different in shade.
Coordinates on GoogleEarth:
Summer opening of Parliament
This was one of the highlights of our recent trip to London, both my husband and I enjoyed it a lot.
During the summer months, there are guided tours of Parliament. Unlike many of the other places we visited on this trip, there was an actual live guide giving the tour instead of an audio guide. The tour lasts approx. 75 minutes, several groups are scheduled to leave at the same time so there are actually quite a few people broken up into smaller groups.
I thought the tour was very interesting, it starts in the Queen's Robing Room, through the Royal Gallery and Prince's Chamber and then through the rooms used by the House of Lords and the House of Commons, finishing up in St Stephen's Hall and Westminster Hall.
What I thought was most interesting to see was the difference in decoration between the deep red furniture and ornate decoration of the House of Lords and the more common green and plain decor in the House of Commons. I also thought it was interesting that the building wasn't nearly as old as I thought having been rebuilt after a fire in the 1850s.
Tickets can be reserved in advance online at no extra charge, link is on the attached website. Or you seemed to be able to get tickets while there by going to the ticket booth that is directly behind the Jewel Tower.
Houses of Parliament
Edward the Confessor had the original palace built in the eleventh century. The British parliament is the seat of the Government of the United Kingdom. The Palace of Westminster consists of the House of Commons (elected) and the House of Lords(not elected- hereditary and nominated).
Parliamentary government in the United Kingdom is based on a two-chamber system. The House of Lords (the upper House-not elected) and the House of Commons (the lower house-elected at least every 5 years) sit separately and are constituted on entirely different principles. The legislative process involves both Houses - the Commons and the Lords.
The main functions of Parliament are to: examine proposals for new laws, provide, by voting for taxation, the means of carrying on the work of government, scrutinise government policy and administration, including proposals for expenditure and to debate the major issues of the day.
Can't miss it
Not really a 'must see' as, if you spend any time in Central London, you can't miss it! Most people know it from the outside and particularly Big Ben, but there are tours of the inside - and the Victorian excesses of design really come home to you in the 'mother of parliaments'.
Built between 1840 and 1870, the Houses of Parliament replaced the old Palace of Westminster that was destroyed by fire in 1834. Part of the Palace, originally a royal residence from the 11th century, had been the meeting place for the forerunner of English parliaments since the 15th century.
When the fire destroyed the Palace, it was felt an appropriate building was required to be the centre of the British Empire and ‘the mother of all parliaments’. So options to move to, among others, Buckingham Palace were firmly rejected (King William IV hated Buck House). What had survived the fire was quickly patched up for meetings with Charles Barry winning the commission for the new building, designed in the Gothic Perpendicular style (Barry was a hugely successful architect at the time, with a number of civic and private commissions and remodelling of country estates to his name. Parts of Harewood House, Cliveden, Trentham Hall, Highclere Castle bear the Barry stamp).
Not all the building follows the original design – 30 years in the building and running over budget saw to that.
The single most famous aspect is Big Ben. It’s commonly believed that the name refers to the tower and clock, but in reality Big Ben is the heaviest of five bells within St Stephen’s Tower and behind the four clockfaces.
Touring the Houses of Parliament is possible but requires a degree of advance planning (theoretically you can buy tickets on the day of tours but that’s taking a big chance).
Guided tours are available on Saturdays and during recess periods (ie when Parliament is not sitting) in August and September. Tickets cost £14/ £6 (kids)/ £35 family (plus booking fee). Booked through Ticketmaster and are approximately 75 minutes long.
Attending a debate or committee meeting is free. They take place Mon-Thurs and on ‘sitting Fridays’. You need to arrive at the Cromwell Green entrance approximately 2 hours before the beginning of the debate – more if it’s a contentious discussion.
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