The British Parliament has an extremely long history, with the first parliamentary session held in St Stephen’s Chapel in 1275. The Palace of Westminster, however, only became the permanent seat of Parliament in 1532, when Henry VIII moved to a new des-res in Whitehall.
The current Palace is a wonderful mish-mash of styles, dominated by Gothic buttresses, towers and arches – plus the world-famous Elizabeth Tower housing Big Ben (inaccessible until 2021 due to restoration work). It looks much older than it is: the Parliament buildings were designed in 1860 by Charles Barry (ably assisted by Augustus Pugin) to replace the original building, which had been destroyed by fire in 1834. Now, the compound contains over 1,000 rooms, 11 courtyards, eight bars and six restaurants, plus a small cafeteria for visitors. Of the original palace, only the Jewel Tower and, within the Parliament buildings, Westminster Hall, remain.
Visitors are welcome (subject to stringent security checks at the Cromwell Green entrance, the only public access point into Parliament) either to tour the palace buildings or to observe the political debates in the House of Lords and House of Commons.
The experience of listening in on the Houses of Parliament in session is often soporific, but Prime Minister’s Question Time at noon on Wednesday is can be quite sparky, with the Prime Minister having to rebuff a barrage of hostile questions from the opposition (and occasionally their own rebellious backbenchers) and massage value out of soft questions from loyal backbenchers eager to present the government in a good light.
For more insight into the history, architecture and arcane practices of parliament, book a 60-minute audio tour or (better) the revealing 90-minute guided tour, which takes in both Houses, Westminster Hall, the Queen’s Robing Room and the Royal Gallery. These are in addition to the free tours that continue to be available to UK residents via local MPs or members of the House of Lords.
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