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Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament Review
If you want to understand some of the centuries-old traditions and arcane idiosyncrasies that make up constitutionless British parliamentary democracy, the Palace of Westminster, as the complex is still properly called, is the place to come. The architecture in this 1,100-room labyrinth impresses, but the real excitement lies in stalking the corridors of power. A palace was first established on this site by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. William II started building a new palace in 1087, and this gradually became the seat of English administrative power. However, fire destroyed most of the palace in 1834, and the current complex dates largely from the middle of the 19th century.
Visitors aren't allowed to snoop too much, but the Visitors' Galleries of the House of Commons do afford a view of democracy in process when the banks of green-leather benches are filled by opposing MPs (members of Parliament). When they speak, it's not directly to each other but through the Speaker, who also decides who will get time on the floor. Elaborate procedures notwithstanding, debate is often drowned out by raucous jeers. When MPs vote, they exit by the "Aye" or the "No" corridor, thus being counted by the party "tellers." There are also Visitors Galleries for The House of Lords, which does not have the power to generate legislation, although it plays a role in scrutiny. The debates are not as rowdy but they tend to be more thoughtful and constructive.
Westminster Hall, with its remarkable hammer-beam roof, was the work of William the Conqueror's son William Rufus. It's one of the largest remaining Norman halls in Europe, and its dramatic interior was the scene of the trial of Charles I.
After the 1834 fire, the Clock Tower—renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in honor of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee—was completed in 1858, and contains the 13-ton bell known as Big Ben. At the southwest end of the main Parliament building is the 323-foot-high Victoria Tower.
The only guided tour nonresidents can go on is the paid-for (£15) tour offered on Saturday, or Monday to Saturday during August and September (book through www.ticketmaster.co.uk).
Nonresidents are able to watch debates when Parliament is in session if they wait in line for tickets. Embassies and High Commissions often have a quota of debate tickets available to their citizens, which can help you avoid long lines.
If you're pressed for time, lines for the House of Lords are often shorter than for the House of Commons. The easiest time to get into the Commons is during an evening session—Parliament is still sitting if the top of the Clock Tower is illuminated.
The most romantic view of the Houses is from the opposite (south) bank, across Lambeth Bridge. It is especially dramatic at night when floodlighted green and gold.
- Address: St. Stephen's Entrance, St. Margaret St., Westminster, London, SW1 0AA | Map It
- Phone: 020/7219–4272 Information; 0844/847–1672 Public Tours
- Cost: Free; tours £15 (must book ahead)
- Hours: Tours: Aug., Mon., Tues., Fri., and Sat. 9:15–4:30, Wed. and Thurs. 1:15–4:30; Sept., Mon., Fri., and Sat. 9:15–4:30, Tues., Wed., and Thurs. 1:15–4:30. Call to confirm hrs for Visitors Galleries.
- Website: www.parliament.uk/visiting
- Tube: Westminster.
- Location: Westminster and Royal London
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