The heart of British politics, the Palace of Westminster is famous the world over. As well as the iconic ‘Big Ben’, the complex is home to several sites of historic interest, most of which can be visited on a guided tour.
The Palace of Westminster
Sitting on the banks of the River Thames in London, the Palace of Westminster is one of the most recognisable buildings in the world.
Far from simply being an iconic photo backdrop for tourists, however, the Palace has a hugely important functional role. It is home to both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
Not surprisingly, then, the building is often referred to as the ‘Houses of Parliament’ or, alternatively, many tourists know it as simply ‘Big Ben‘, after the famous clock tower.
The Palace of Westminster can be found in the heart of the City of Westminster, right next to Westminster Abbey. Its postcode is London SW1A 0AA.
Admission to the Houses of Parliament
Each year, tens of thousands of tourists pay a visit to the Palace of Westminster, most of them to see the Houses of Parliament, where important decisions have been debated and made for decades.
Unlike some world parliaments, it’s still relatively easy to take a tour of the most important site in British politics. Indeed, Parliament is open to all, both those from the UK and those from overseas, with visitors even able to watch politicians engaged in debate or take a peek at important committee meetings. So, how do you gain admission to the Houses of Parliament?
If you’re a UK resident, then you can arrange a tour of the House through your local MP. Simply get in touch with their constitutional office and they will give you a date and a time to attend an official tour. This will not only give you the chance to see the famous green benches of power for yourself, but your guide will also take you to the House of Lords and tell you all about the rich and fascinating history of the building.
If you’re not a UK resident, then you can still get inside the most significant building in the country. Self-guided audio tours of both houses are available on Saturdays throughout the year, as well as on normal weekdays when Parliament is in recess. What’s more, you can even combine a tour with afternoon tea on the terrace overlooking the Thames. Advance booking is strongly advised, especially during the summer months. Bookings can be made through the official Parliament website.
History of the Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster may not be the oldest seat of government in the world but it is certainly one of the most fascinating in terms of its history.
In fact, the building only dates back to the 1830s. Initially, the riverside site was home to the primary residence of the kings of England. At the same time, it served as the seat of the Parliament of England, which had been meeting in this part of London since around the year 1250. Sadly, the old building, including the location of the infamous ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of November 5th, was destroyed by a fire in 1834, with only a handful of Medieval structures remaining. These include Westminster Hall, where Henry VIII allegedly played tennis (visitors can see an old ball nestling in the rooftop), the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft and the Jewel Tower.
What the world sees today, then, is a relatively modern building, at least in terms of London. It was built in the 1830s and designed by the architect Charles Barry, who won a nationwide competition aimed at coming up with plans for a new seat of government. Barry’s design incorporates a Gothic Revival style, while also incorporating many of the older features inside. This was in stark contrast to the neo-Classical style used for other governmental buildings being built at the same time, including the White House and the Federal Capitol in the United States. Work continued for more than 20 years, with the House of Commons actually finished after the House of Lords.
In more recent history, the Palace of Westminster was the target of frequent Nazi bombing raids during the Second World War. In all, it was hit on 14 separate occasions, with one bomb actually lifting the old statue of Richard the Lionheart from its pedestal. The fact that the old king’s sword bent but didn’t break was seen as a sign that Britain would not succumb to foreign aggression.
Due to its cultural and political significance, the Palace of Westminster was given Grade I Listed status in 1970 and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Layout of the Palace of Westminster
To the uninitiated, the Palace of Westminster may seem confusing, but its layout is actually well thought-through and highly functional.
The building is, generally speaking, divided in two. That is, the debating chambers of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are separated by a Central Lobby, which serves as a central spine to the whole Palace. Serving these important places, the Speaker’s House, the residence of the Speaker of the House who overseas the debates in the Commons, is located in the north-east corner, while the Victoria Tower, largely symbolic, is directly opposite at the north-east corner. On the western side of the building, meanwhile, is the historic Westminster Hall, again largely symbolic but the oldest site of the whole complex and a highlight of guided tours.
As might be expected, members of the public and their servants in the House of Commons enter the Palace of Westminster through different doors. Members of Parliament (or MPs as they are commonly referred to) enter the building through the Members’ Entrance, situated at the south side of the New Palace Yard. This takes them into an historic cloakroom and through the Members’ Lobby into the debating chamber.
Members of the public, however, need to enter the famous building through the St Stephen’s Entrance, located almost in the centre of the western front of the complex. This brings visitors straight into the impressive St Stephen’s Hall and the well-trodden route to the Central Chamber and entrance to the debating chambers take them past statues of the historic giants of British politics, including Walpole, Pitt and Fox.
Towers at the Palace of Westminster
The whole Palace of Westminster features three towers, all of them adding to the grandeur of the building.
The tallest and most striking of these three is the Victoria Tower, standing some 323-feet tall. Initially called ‘The King’s Tower’ after King William IV, this was designed to be the centrepiece of Barry’s vision for the centre of government and was, at the time, the tallest non-religious structure in the whole world. At the base of the Victoria Tower is the main entrance of the whole complex, used by the reigning king or queen to enter the building when visiting to open Parliament for a new term. These days, the tower is also home to the parliamentary archives, which includes such historic gems as the original Bill of Rights and the death warrant of King Charles I.
While the Victoria Tower may be the tallest, it’s actually the Elizabeth Tower that is the most famous. The tall, slim tower, is the clock tower, inside which is housed ‘Big Ben’ the huge bell whose ring is famous the world over.
The third, and shortest of the three towers of the Palace of Westminster is the Central Tower. As the name suggests, this rises out of the middle of the building, stretching 299-feer into the sky. As well as being ornamental, this was constructed to function as a ventilation chimney for the whole complex, a purpose it still serves to this day.