Tag Archives: Houses of Parliament

Swells and Bells

Time to meet Heidi.  The tour with a human guide had sold out so Heidi was on her own with an audio guide.  We kept seeing each other, even in the immense palace heaving with thousands of people.

Visiting Parliament was the tourist highlight of my summer.  I don’t know why I’d never been before.  We weren’t allowed to take photos, which was probably good because there was so much to absorb.

London is made up of inner and outer boroughs, Westminster being one of them.  Westminster is also a city.  Then there’s The City, which is the business hub of London, while Westminster is everything else.  Westminster originally meant “that church on the west side of town” and there was also an east minster.

Is that clear?

Westminster was originally built as a palace in 1016 for Canute the Great. What Americans think of when we hear Westminster—if we think anything at all—is of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames, and that’s all spectacular.  Occasionally we’ll be treated to news clips of parliamentarians ranting at one another.  Our politicians don’t yell—they smile and talk in circles and stab each other—and us— in the back.

The guide for our group of 20 informed us she was a Blue Badge, which meant she knew her stuff and had undergone extensive training to present information in a clear and entertaining manner.  Standing in the enormous great hall where the tour started, I had my doubts about how well I’d be able to hear her, but she projected beautifully.

I won’t go into an explanation of how the UK government is organized and how it functions.  I was curious to hear what she would have to say about the House of Lords and the role of the monarch.  As an American, the idea of unelected representatives living lavish lifestyles is incomprehensible.  We like that England has a royal family we can read about in the tabloids, but we wouldn’t put up with (and pay for) one ourselves.

When I was relating this to some friends of Lynn’s the following month, in Scotland, the wife pushed back and said, “But you have dynasties!  What about the Kennedys?  The Clintons?  The Bushes?”

Fair enough. We do give extra points for name recognition.  However, George W. Bush did have to run for office, and it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that he would win.  His brother Jeb bombed in the last election. You know what happened to Hillary.

By contrast, the queen and princes not only don’t have to run for office, they really can’t escape them unless they do something drastic like marry a divorced American commoner … oops … times have changed, that’s no longer enough to get you disqualified.

The nearly 800 members of the House of Lords are appointed, and the monarchy is hereditary.  Members of the House of Lords receive a £300 per day attendance allowance.  They get this whether they spend 10 minutes in the chambers or 10 hours, is my understanding. This feels outrageous to me, but I guess if UK tax payers are okay with it, it’s not my problem.

The 650 members of the House of Commons, who have to run for office, earn a basic salary of £74,000 plus supplements based on their role, ranging from £15,025 to £74,990 (for the Prime Minister). This is does not seem out of line to me, given that London is one of the most expensive cities on earth.

Our guide posited that their unelected branches of government are a strength because they aren’t constantly thinking about the next election and what moves they should take to look good to the electorate.  The monarchy and House of Lords balance the constantly-changing winds of politics with continuity and stability.

Speaking of divisions, the guide spoke about the “division bells” which are set in pubs around Parliament.  When they ring, MPs have eight minutes to run back to Westminster for a vote.

Heidi and I, being great students of history, took it upon ourselves to conduct further research on Parliament in the Red Lion.  We didn’t hear the bell ring but we had a smashing time while planning our next move.

Being There

I had an hour before I would meet Heidi and there were swarms of people on the streets but nowhere to sit and have a cup of tea.  Normally I would have gone for a walk to see what I could stumble upon, but the rain hadn’t let up and I just wasn’t in the mood to get splashed by taxis and spend the rest of the day with wet pant legs and shoes.

Then I noticed a modest structure across from Parliament with a sign out front and wandered over to have a look.  It turned out to be what was left of the original Royal Palace of Westminster, the Jewel Tower.

Before I paid my five quid or whatever it cost, I asked the guy at the till, “Will I be able to see it all in an hour?”

He laughed a little.  “Oh yes.  It’s smaller on the inside than what you see on the outside.  No one’s been in all day,” he said.  “You’ll have the place to yourself.”

“It’s weird there are thousands of people standing in line for a tour of Parliament, just steps away across the street, but no one in here.”

“I know.  This place isn’t on any of the Top 10 lists. It’s the kind of place people visit the fifth time they come.”

Erm…that would be me.  I hadn’t known of the Jewel Tower’s existence until now, as I began climbing the steep, winding, stone steps to the top floor.

The Jewel Tower was built around 1365 to hold the treasure of King Edward III.  It was used as a store house for special-occasion clothing, public records, and jewels—as you might expect.  In the late 18th Century it was turned into the office of Weights and Measures—exciting stuff!  There were displays in the small rooms of some of the objects stored or measured there, but the best part was the views of Parliament from inside the tower.  None of my photos turned out, but trust me; it was very atmospheric to see Victoria Tower in the rain through the wavy, hundreds-of-years-old window glass.

I was done in 15 minutes but felt like the guy downstairs might be offended if I popped down too soon, so I sat on a window ledge and enjoyed the views, including the forever queuing tourists.  It was warm and cozy in here. After a few minutes I traipsed down the steps and bought a cup of tea in the tiny café area.  The ceiling was only maybe 12×12 feet, but richly adorned.  My friend was busy with two new guests, so I gazed up and around between sips and killed a half hour.

How often are we forced to do nothing?  Rarely.  And I have to be forced.  I can’t do it on my own.  After 15 minutes I began to notice things I wouldn’t have if I’d given the place the usual cursory once over. Differences in colors where a wall must have been repaired.  Was that from the great fire?  There was a lion’s head—was it carved in stone, or wood?  How was it attached to the ceiling?

Looking straight on, my view was a little display of souvenirs and a freezer full of ice cream treats.  Ice cream treats!  This is one regard in which the Brits are eternally optimistic.  There might be that one warm day when an ice cream treat wouldn’t freeze off your already cold cockles.

I realize I’m writing about a lot of nothing here, but that’s my point.  I had nothing to do, nowhere to go.  I wasn’t in any hurry, and there wasn’t a lot to see but what there was, I really saw that day.

I realize I’m writing about a lot of nothing here, but that’s my point.  I had nothing to do, nowhere to go.  I wasn’t in any hurry, and there wasn’t a lot to see but what there was, I really saw that day.

I was kind of impressed with myself that I wasn’t ruminating about my dad, after feeling the shock of recognition in Victoria Park.  I didn’t think about shopping, or work, or paying my bills, or how I was going to lose 10 pounds, or what time I needed to catch the train to get back to Windsor by sunset.

I was just there, off leash.  This only happens when I’m traveling.