There are some events that just have to be booked as soon as you hear about them and lunch at the Houses of Parliament was definitely one of these. Why you may ask? Because it’s the first time they have ever let us commoners into the Peers dining room without a Lord or Lady to be our minder and keep us in order!
I gathered a small group of equally excited friends and we headed to the mother of parliaments on a bright and sunny London day. We were told the dress code was smart/casual and the security would be airport style so, properly prepared, off we went.
The Houses of Parliament building is always impressive, no matter how many times I see it so I snapped a few shots before we entered the no photo zone inside.
Walking into the ancient Westminster Hall is always a thrill as this room has seen great moments in British history such as the trial of Charles 1 which resulted in his execution and Winston Churchill’s laying in state for the public to pay their respects. There will be more about Westminster Hall later on…
Would you like a drink at the bar before your lunch? This was the tempting question put to us as we approached the dining room and it seemed churlish to say no! Also, we wanted to have a nose around the bar where, no doubt, the Peers spend quite a bit of time. It’s a wood panelled room with large windows overlooking the Thames, with a high ceiling and has an overwhelming air of tradition. Watched by the faces of old parliamentarians on the paintings that filled most of the available wall space, we settled in for a swift one. A very competitively priced peach bellini slipped down quickly and it was time to order our meal from the 3-course set menu.
After careful consideration I plumped for the potted confit of sea trout and crab to start, followed by corn-fed chicken breast and the summer pudding for dessert. A cup of filter coffee and a House of Lords chocolate were a welcome finish. This menu is much shorter than the one offered to Peers but had plenty of choice for me and each dish was well prepared, cooked and presented. The no photo rule means I can’t show you what we ate but rest assured it was well worth the £35 set menu price.
The dining room shares many features with the bar with its wood panels, yet more paintings of royals or parliamentarians and has a wonderful painted ceiling.
The staff were unfailingly polite, professional, and happy to chat as when the Peers are in it’s all go and time is very pressurised so they welcomed a more relaxed atmosphere and a chance to talk with their customers. They all hope this experiment of opening up to the ‘ordinary people’ will be repeated as it brings in much-needed cash and a bit of real life into these dining rooms. Keep an eye open and you could be lucky enough to step lunch here too!
Even here in the Houses of Parliament, there is a chance to ‘exit through the gift shop’ but all the items on sale were top quality and I couldn’t resist a small notebook, red with the Lords crest. It will make a great birthday gift for one lucky friend…
They say you wait for ages for a bus then three come together, a phenomenon I experienced I was back at the Houses of Parliament one week later on a full visit thanks to an invitation from their Visitor Services. I took my time to check out the statues outside the building where Richard 1st, The Lionheart and Cromwell make an interesting pair!
Back in Westminster Hall I still find it hard to believe that this building dates back as far as 1099 and the enormous hammerbeam wooden roof has been in place since at least the 14th century. It’s the oldest building in this complex and survived a bomb attack during the blitz of London when in May 1941 the House of Commons and this Hall were burning and it is said a call was made to Churchill to decide what to do as the firefighters could not save both. The Commons were left to burn down and thankfully the Hall was saved. The Hall was probably the largest building in Europe when it was built and still feels impressive in its scale. The first recognisable Parliament was held here in 1265 and it was here that key trials were held as well as important speeches made. This tradition continues as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama have addressed both Houses in here as this is the only room big enough to hold all the MPs and Peers. Plaques on the floor tell the story of some of what these walls have witnessed much of it rather gruesome given what happened following the trials of Guy Fawkes and William Wallace…
The only other area where photography is allowed is St Stephen’s Hall with its ornately carved stone doorway which is typical of the stonework throughout the palace. This hall is where the House of Commons sat until the old Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834 when it was rebuilt to the original dimensions.
From St Stephens Hall, you tour the famous Central Lobby which is often on the TV as it is a crossover point between the entrances to the Lords and the Commons. The Lords Chamber takes your breath away with its sumptuous red and gold decorations and a splendid gilded throne used only by the Sovereign when she opens Parliament. The House of Commons, by contrast, looks a little plain with its wood panels and green cushioning but on closer inspection, it’s pretty grand too. You can stand at the Dispatch Boxes where the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition stand across from each other and hurl barely disguised insults at the weekly Prime Minister’s Question Time! These boxes were gifts from New Zealand and among the gifts from the Commonwealth and Empire in 1950 when the house reopened after the war damage – there were a lot of ashtrays and inkstands, gifts from another age. Both houses are televised and the microphones, speakers and screens sit slightly incongruously with the gothic style architecture of Charles Barry, so popular with the Victorians.
The audio guide is full of fascinating information in manageable chunks. You learn how Parliament works, its history, what each room is for, how the Queen arrives through her own entrance and how the division bell which rings to call MPs to vote gives them 8 minutes to rush in from the nearest pub where a relay of the bell rings to disturb their drinking – I mean discussions!
There is so much to see, a visit with an audio guide would need at least one and half hours and probably more than two hours for visitors not familiar with the British parliamentary system so wanting to learn more. Everywhere you look there is something to investigate from the ornate floor tiles, the elaborately painted ceilings, the statues and paintings and wonderful stone architecture.
If you want to tour this great building check out their website and do try to fit one into your itinerary.