As the capital city of England, London has amassed a great many holy sites, royal palaces and central governing landmark buildings. Whilst some of these are working offices for the likes of the civil service and the police force, others are open to visits, tours and sightseeing from guests of spa hotels London and other tourist accommodation.
One of the most prominent landmarks concerning English governance is the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, AKA Elizabeth Tower. Once known as the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament are situated on the northern banks of the Thames in Central London. Big Ben, the huge clock tower attached to it is younger than the Houses of Parliament but was designed to blend into the beautiful Gothic Revival complex. Guests of the Montcalm City Hotel visiting riverside attractions such as the London Eye and South Bank will easily be able to spot this legendary seat of English power from the riverside.
This blog will explore some of the history surrounding these two beautiful icons of the London cityscape, and explain how tourists can visit them, providing you don’t suffer from vertigo!
The Palace of Westminster
The Houses of Parliament - or more formally known as the Palace of Westminster - is the heart of the British government. The House of Commons, located within, is where the MPs for England meet, debate and vote on the day to day runnings of the country. With offices for the civil service and even its own pub, the Palace of Westminster is its own living, breathing village in the heart of London.
The 11th Century
Records of a royal structure on the site of the Palace of Westminster date back to the Middle Ages. The area may have been used by kings in the 9th and 10th centuries as a seat of power as the area was a strategically important point on the edge of the river.
In the 11th century, Edward The Confessor built the original Westminster Palace at the same time as the nearby Westminster Abbey. The latter was built as a burial site for when he died, the former was built for him to enjoy during life. The structure of the original Palace of Westminster doesn’t survive, but there are still some echoes of the 11th century at the modern day palace. Tours of the Palace of Westminster will take visitors through Westminster Hall, which dates back to the reign of WIlliam II and was built some time between the years 1090 and 1100.
The Palace of Westminster In The Tudor Era
As is the case with many aspects of the country, the reign of the Tudor King Henry VIII was a major turning point for the complex. When he moved from the recently burnt down private chambers of the Palace of Westminster to the Palace of Whitehall close by, Henry VIII moved his members of Parliament to debate in the Painted Chamber. Eventually, they moved to the White Chamber, which was bigger. Both of these areas can be visited during a tour of Westminster. The move became an habitual meeting place, and ever since, members of parliament have met on the site. The royal family began using it as a residence less and less throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, especially after their acquisition of the nearby Buckingham Palace in 1761.
Houses Of Parliament Rebirth
The Palace of Westminster and the Palace of Whitehall were destroyed in a fire in the year 1834, leading to just the Palace of Westminster being rebuilt. The Lords Chamber was rebuilt in 1847 and the Commons in 1852. The result was the neo gothic revival building that you can see today.
Big Ben’s Construction
Interestingly, the most iconic element of the Houses of Parliament was the last to be added. After the reconstruction of the Palace of Westminster’s House of Commons and Lords Chamber, Big Ben began a 16 year construction in 1843 and is now the third tallest clock tower in the country, stretching 96.3 metres above the Thames. The clocktower is built with an exterior layer of sand coloured South Yorkshire limestone, and its spire is built with cast iron tiles. The bell, which sounds an “e” note every hour on the hour, weighs 16 tonnes and was cast in Stockton-on-Tees in the north of England.
With 334 steps to the belfry, the spiral staircase is definitely a work out, but we’ll get onto tours in a minute.
Renaming As Elizabeth Tower
Though it might be known as Big Ben to most first time guests of hotels near Liverpool Street Station and other tourists, the official name of the clock tower is Elizabeth Tower, renamed after Queen Elizabeth II on her diamond jubilee in 2012. This coincided with the Queen Elizabeth Park being named after her, quite the anniversary gift!
Visiting Big Ben
Residents of the UK can book free tours of Queen Elizabeth Tower, though there can be very long waiting lists of more than 6 months. It’s also worth noting that the tower has no escalator or lift, so is unsuitable for those with health or mobility problems.
Visiting The Houses of Parliament
Ticketed tours are available of the Houses of Parliament and are free for residents of the UK. These tours are guided by UK Parliament expert hosts, who use microphones to provide information via headset. The tour will take visitors through the House of Lords, Westminster Hall and the House of Commons and will offer insight into the daily workings of the building and the history behind some of its artefacts.
Due to it being the functioning headquarters of the British government, there are various areas that are unfortunately off limits.
That being said, guests of hotel restaurants near Finsbury Square and other tourists are welcome to visit the House of Lords Chamber during debates. Except for times when parliament is in recess, usually the summer, you can visit during working hours but must put time aside for airport level security. You will have to queue on Cromwell Green to gain entry on the day. To avoid disappointment due to tight restrictions on attendance, you should aim to reach the queue about an hour before debates begin, which is when the queue opens to the public. Whilst tickets aren’t necessary for general debates, you will have to book free tickets for the PM’s Questions.