“Why haven’t we been inside the Houses of Parliament?” enquired the Junior CW’s. Fair enough question and one to which I didn’t have a good answer. A few clicks later we had tickets for the whole family . Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Parliament; the seat of British government goes by many different names, we were lucky enough to have a perfectly sunny day for our visit.
Inside the Houses of Parliament
Security checks are thorough, as you would expect, and once past them cameras are strictly forbidden but you do get an excellent audio guide. The first space that you enter is vast, Westminster Hall is a jaw droppingly large place now, goodness only knows how awe-inspiring it must have been seen through medieval eyes. The wood timber roof is the largest hammer-beam roof in the world. In this room Charles I was tried, Nelson Mandela addressed both Houses of Parliament and monarchs have laid in state here. Brass plaques dot the floor indicating where momentous events took place.
Westminster Hall was the only part of the medieval palace of Westminster to survive a fire in 1834. The rest of the familiar building is a Victorian creation. What you don’t see on television is just how much gold there is everywhere. No surface seems to go undecorated with at least some glitter. The windows are filled with stained glass, colour is everywhere. The tour takes you into the House of Lords, it is so much smaller that you would expect and Queen’s throne so much more golden. You get a sense that it is a chamber in which discussion is possible rather than the exchange of ranting speeches.
After the Lords you follow the route that Black Rod takes when he goes to summon the Commons to hear the Queen’s speech. Nobody slams the doors of the House of Commons in your face, you get walk straight in. Once again it is so much smaller than it appears to be on television, you can see that heated debate is likely as opponents on the front benches are so close that they could almost touch.
Women have not always enjoyed equal status in the House of Commons, women finally got the vote in 1918. A light sculpture by Mary Branson has been installed to mark the centenary of votes for women. New Dawn, takes its inspiration from the vellum scrolls that contain the laws of the land and continually changes.
Tours of the Houses of Parliament
You can tour the Houses of Parliament when the house in recess or not sitting. That means most school holidays. There are various types of tour, whichever one you opt for you will need to book ahead.
Guided Tour of the Houses of Parliament
Exactly as it sounds you have a real live person taking you round the building, telling the stories and giving their insight. You get to see Westminster Hall, the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Multi-media Tour of the Houses of Parliament
Instead of a real live guide you get a multi media headset and controller. You are in charge of how quickly you make your way around the building.
Free Inside UK Parliament Tours
If you are a UK resident you can have a free tour of Parliament. You need to book this via your MP or a member of the House of Lords. Or you can book online. These tours are available only when Parliament is sitting. You get to see how Parliament works and find out how you can engage in with the democratic process.
Free Online Tour
On Tuesdays and Wednesdays you can join a free guided online tour but you do need to book. You can see inside the UK Parliament buildings in 360˚ splendour, a presenter takes you on a 45 minute tour and there is time for questions afterwards.
Watch House of Commons debates
Anyone can watch the House of Commons in action from the public gallery. You do need to be organised though and taking children is tricky as Parliamentary terms tend to coincide with school terms, meaning that debates happen when children are at school. The public galleries are open Monday – Thursday when Parliament is sitting. Access is free, you just need to turn up. Admittance is on a strict first come, first served basis, just join the queue at the Cromwell Green entrance. Tickets are required for Prime Minister’s Questions and Ministerial Question Time.
When you leave the Palace of Westminster take a look at the statues of the great and good that line Parliament Square or pop along Whitehall to see Banqueting House, the place where Parliament took control and beheaded Charles I
Visiting the Palace of Westminster need to know
- Palace of Westminster, Parliament Square, SW1A 0AA
- Open: Saturdays and weekdays during parliamentary recesses
- Admission: Guided Tour Adult £29, Multimedia Tour Adult £22.50
- Book in advance via UK Parliament website