The Houses of Parliament
& Big Ben
London's Houses of Parliament, or the Palace of Westminster as it is officially known, together with its tower housing Big Ben, its world famous clock, (named after the bell that tolls the hour), is one of the iconic sights and sounds of London.
Palace of Westminster, SW1A 0AA.|
Access: Parliament is open to all members of the UK public. Registered voters can obtain free access through their Member of Parliament. They can watch laws being made, attend debates and committees, tour the buildings, climb Big Ben. Oversees visitors can attend debates and take the guided tours of the buildings during summer recess, subject to security. Times are usually 9:15am-4:30pm. End July - End September. Closed Sundays, Bank Holidays. Wheelchair accessible, (except for Big Ben), guided tours lasting 75 minutes take place throughout the day during the summer months. Check the website for up-to-date details, tickets, (online or at door) etc.
Tickets: £12, (2007 prices, Concessions).Summer Box Office: 0870 906 3773 or at entrance. Tickets are date-timed. Check website for instructions.
London Transport: Nearest Tube. Westminster, (Jubilee/Circle & District Lines). Riverboat. Westminster Millenium Pier.
1. Read about the the Houses of Parliament in a good guide book to orientate yourself before your visit. The time spent will provide dividends.
2. Time budget 2 hours for your exterior and interior tour of the Houses of Parliament and Parliament Square with its interesting monuments and statuary.
3. Add an extra hour if you wish to see the Old monastery Chapter House, Pyx Chamber and museum, College Garden, neighboring St. Margaret's Church, (no extra charge for these).
5. This is a good opportunity to spend a day in the area visiting Westminster Abbey and the medieval Jewel Tower. Be sure to see the interesting monuments and statuary in Parliament Square commemorating Richard Lionheart, Winston Churchill, General Smuts, Oliver Cromwell, Queen Boudicca, and many more.
6. Comfortable, sturdy walking shoes, a shoulder bag and a collapsible umbrella are essential accessories. The bag will hold your umbrella, camera, a snack and all the literature and souvenirs you collect during the day.
7. If pressed for time, book Knownworld Travel's popular 3 1/2 hour guided Essential London Tour. As well as Westminster Abbey, you will also see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall and Downing Street - the London residence of the Prime Minister - Trafalgar Square, and the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, Mayfair and Piccadilly Circus, the heart of London's West End. Knownworld's extended full day Discovering London Tour includes lunch in a London pub, a river trip on the Thames and a visit to the Tower of London and St. Paul's Cathedral.
The exterior of the Palace of Westminster is a world famous masterpiece of 19th Century Gothic Revival by Sir Charles Barry, (1795-1860). Its exterior decorative detail however merely hints at the brilliance of the interiors by his collaborator Augustus Welby Pugin, (1812-52). Barry's design with Pugin's decoration was chosen in 1835 to replace the old Palace of Westminster, which had survived the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to be almost completely destroyed by fire in 1834. Barry's completed building itself narrowly escaped destruction by the German Luftwaffe in the 1941 bombingt blitz of World War II.
Westminster Hall was one of the few medieval buildings to survive the 1834 fire intact. Barry incorporated it into his great design for the new Parliament building with its grand riverside frontages punctuated by visually appealing vertical accents and terminated by the Victoria Tower in the west and the Big Ben Clock Tower in the east. His design is a visually aesthetic triumph, not only of architectural inspiration, but also of Barry's will over controversy in 25 years of endless battle with critically hostile committees of politicians that exhausted and finally killed him.
The clock tower with its famous bell 'Big Ben' was completed in 1858 and is surely the most famous clock in the world thanks to the sound of its chimes broadcast daily by the BBC. UK residents who are physically fit and undaunted by the stairs, may climb to the top by prior arrangement with their Member of Parliament.
Burlington Bertie's Verdict: Having admired the building from the outside and in particular from the riverside southern aspect as the architect intended, take the guided tour inside. As well as gaining some insight into the workings of Britain's historic parliamentary democracy, you will have the opportunity to admire Pugin's warm Decorated Gothic romanticism. Son of a French aristocrat who fled the Revolution, and celebrated originally as a designer of historical costumes for the London Theatre and Opera, he was minutely responsible for every inch of the interior and its richly colourful ornamentation. Above all, to the right of his dimly lit octagonal Central Lobby dividing the Upper and Lower House, (the chambers of the Lords and the Commons), is his masterpiece; the House of Lords, spectacularly climaxed by his glorious golden royal throne, which gives a breathtaking majesty to the already splendid chamber where the sovereign presides at the annual State Opening of Parliament each November.
On your tour, contrast Pugin's Victorian Decorated Gothic Chamber with the starkly simple Gothic grandeur of Henry Yevele's 14th century Westminster Hall, where the dead sovereigns and their consorts lie in State prior to funeral and interment at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. From the time of William the Conqueror until the accession of William IV in 1830, Westminster Hall was the venue for coronation banquets and major treason trials. King Charles I was arraigned before Cromwell's men and sentenced to death here.
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