Middlesex 4 - a gothic extravaganza, the knights of the round table, Big Ben - a day trip to London

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October 22nd 2014
Published: October 23rd 2014
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Morning hadn't broken when we left home for a day trip to London. Darkness was still upon us and we were very sleepy heads as we had to get up at 4.15. Yawn, Yawn. Not a bit of birdsong at this time of year. They are all snuggled up until the early morning light breaks. And no-one on the road. The usual drive to Chesterfield especially at commuter time as everyone converges on the town for work or school can be long and drawn out. Five miles taking longer than the drive of twelve from Rhuthun to Mold in a morning.

Not the usual sort of trip and not a glimpse of Suzy. She was staying on the drive. Glenn was staying at home and I was on my way to the train station at Chesterfield . The trip was a combination of work - a visit to our head office and the pleasure part a tour around the Palace of Westminster - the seat of the UK government.

Breakfast, a quick shower and my colleague was knocking on the back door. Time to drive into Chesterfield for the 6.12 Virgin train. It was pitch black as we drove into the station car park and we met up with a further four colleagues from another office. Tickets purchased beforehand we just had to insert cards into the ticket machine and print out our tickets for the trip. Easier than picking tickets up or printing them in an Italian railway station. The cost though a shock to the system. £193 for an open ticket. You could go for a weeks holiday for that. No wonder our trains are in such a state. I would not have paid that for the ticket and thought twice about the trip if it had to come out of my pocket.

The train arrived on time and was relatively empty. I had my tickets booked separately which meant I should have sat down in a different part of the train. But as it was empty I was able to sit with my colleagues as we sped under the marvel that is Clay Cross tunnel constructed to go under the town and we arrived at our first stop of Derby. From there the train snaked its way down through the East Midlands, Loughborough and Leicester picking up passengers along the way. Morning had slowly started to break as we sped south. Refreshments were served which passed away a little time and the countryside opened out in front of us. At last we could see things outside of the carriage windows.

We arrived in St Pancreas by 9.15 and disembarked onto what is a wonderful Gothic creation of brick and stone. Recently refurbished it is one of the most stunning concourses I have been in and apart from Milan could be one of the best. Shops and cafes spilled out under the glass roof and the space was lit by natural light. Only problem we were in the Big Smoke and there were thousands of people heaving in and out of the station. As we were in a hurry to get to our HQ there was no time to take photographs as I would have lost the rest of the group and I had little idea where exactly I was going to visit first.

Having arrived at our destination we were allocated a guide/mentor for the day, issued with badges and taken down the street to the Palace of Westminster where our tour would begin. As we walked through the throngs we passed the Law Courts, a host of police men marshalling a demonstration which was being held outside the parliament building. Squally rain fell and soaked us whilst we crossed the busy roads and queued conga style to enter the House.

As we waited to be checked in we had chance to admire the gothic facade of the building. It looked as if the architect had a vision of filling every available space with a statue or some ornamental feature. Not a space lay bare as the stone was carved into intricate designs. Nothing plain here. It seemed odd that we had been watching programmes this week on the art of Gothic - or the art of the Victorian style of Gothic which was even more fancy that the original Medieval version it was modelled on. Outside was perhaps the most bizarre statue - to the visitor who knows nothing of British history it was of a man standing proudly looking out from parliament. A classic example of Homo Thornycrofts work. A well designed and carved statue with a black lion carved at the base. But it was the subject that was bizarre in such a place - of such a controversial figure . In fact opinion was divided when it was sculpted as to whether the guy was a hero or a villain. And even today he is either reviled or disliked or he is loved and actually came out in the top 10 of all time British greats. On to a horrible history lesson. Horrible depending of course on which side of the fence you stand on British monarchy and the role of parliament . So it is to chopping off kings heads and digging up of corpses and hanging them we go.

OK so here goes - It is the 16th century, king living like a rich man in his palaces with little idea what is going on his land. Taking from the poor and spending it on wars, frippery, wars, more frippery whilst his country is slowly heading for bankcrupcy. Sounds familiar. Nothing new there then. Oliver Cromwell - the subject of the statue was born in 1599 and was a military leader born into middle gentry. He was part of that society. A gentleman then who lived in peace and quiet in the country for the first 40 years of his life. Probably tending his crops and his animals , looking after his land and doing what middle gentry did - whatever that was. A bit of money, a nice house and a reasonable standard of living. He underwent a religious conversion and became a puritan taking a pretty tolerant view of things at the time. Didn't stay that way for long did it! Like most Puritans he felt God was on his side and was guiding him to something and what that something was changed history forever. He stood for parliament for the seat of Huntingdon in 1628 and then for Cambridge later in 1640 and between 1640 and 1649. Things were not going well for the King and parliament at that time and there was worse to come. The common man was getting fed up of paying for wars and paying for the king to enjoy himself . Can't blame them. You do get hacked off after so long. English men got to fighting each other and hence the English Civil War started . Roundheads on the side of Parliament and Cavaliers on the side of the King. Families fighting each other as they found themselves on different sides of the fence. Problem was which side was going to win. Old Ironsides Cromwell or Charles I. I guess there was only going to be one end and that resulted in the chopping off of the Kings Head. Cromwell had approved this and following the Kings death England became ruled as a Commonwealth without a King nor monarchy. This state of affairs didnt last long and eventually Charles II was called back from exile and took up where his father had left off. Cromwell had died, been buried in state, dug up, tried for treason, hung even though he was dead and then his corpse or what was left of it was drawn and quartered. His head left for all to see . A hero turned villain turned hero depending which side of the fence you stand on. For me I rather liked him. He sounded a decent sort of chap, one with good ideas and some good came out of affair. Pity he got rid of a lot of the beauty of our churches and rid the country of its priceless crown jewels. I pondered what things would have been like if he had failed in his quest to rid the country of what was seen as a feckless, wasteful institution and wonder what he would think of monarchy and parliament today.

And so the conga progressed slowly in the rain until we reached airport style security which was in place. Armed guards and police by the dozen. Coat off, heavy cardigan off, bag removed, watch removed and into the boxes for security screening. Through the screens we walked all flashing green for go with the exception of one of our party who bleeped very loudly red - security issue. Off with more jewellery and she tried again. Still not green so back out and off with more bling until finally she got her green for go light. However at the other side she was subjected to a full body search, front and back of her flimsy dress - hardly room to hide anything under that , inside her boots and under her armpits. After the embarrassment of holding everyone up we moved quickly through to the place where we met up with our tour guide. After all the security and problems in Canada it is clear to see why we get this level of security. Sad that it needs to be done but necessary in this modern world.

The first royal palace was built on the site in the eleventh century, and Westminster was the primary London residence of the Kings of England until a fire destroyed much of the complex in 1512. After that, it served as the home of Parliament, which had been meeting there since the thirteenth century, and the seat of the Royal Courts of Justice. In 1834, a great fire ravaged the heavily rebuilt Houses of Parliament, and the only structures of significance to survive were Westminster Hall, the Cloisters of St Stephen's, the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft and the Jewel Tower. There was a competition for the reconstruction of the Palace which was won by architect Charles Barrie and his design for a building in the Perpendicular Gothic And what a building it is with the remains of the Old Palace (with the exception of the detached Jewel Tower) incorporated in its much larger replacement, which contains over 1,100 rooms organised symmetrically around two series of courtyards. We saw just a few of those fantastic rooms each decorated in a wonderful medieval Gothic style. From the paintings to the furnishings. Good old Pugin beloved authority of Gothic helped with the design and building. His work can be seen from churches to cathedrals across the country. Construction started in 1840 and lasted for thirty years, suffering great delays and cost overruns, as well as the death of both leading architects; works for the interior decoration continued intermittently well into the twentieth century.

We met in one of the oldest parts of the building. Sadly the words non tocare and the no photographs inside came up. Memories are going to fade as there was so much beauty. I can understand the reasons - high security with the numbers of visitors to the house and also wanting to get tours round without all that stopping and snapping but I really hate it when I cannot snap away. St Stephen's Entrance is roughly in the middle of the building's western front and is the entrance for members of the public. We were told this was where the trial of King Charles took place and where he was sentenced to death. This is where coffins stand in state before burial and was full of marble statues of ex prime ministers. A typical Medieval hall with hammerbeam ceilings in rich oak . The walls covered in fresco paintings. Everything harking back to chivalry and medievalism. I dont think I have seen so much gilding on walls, on thrones , on ceilings and in every conceivable space. The place glistened and shone . We visited the Queens Robing Room again gold everywhere and frescoed. Many of the carvings on the walls depict Arthurian legend and the tales of the Round Table. Victorians considered Arthur even though he was probably Welsh as the source of their nationhood. On the walls five frescos painted by William Dyce between 1848 and 1864 cover the walls, depicting allegorical scenes from the legend. Each scene represents a chivalric virtue; the largest, between the two doors, is entitled Admission of Sir Tristram to the Round Table and the rest were of other knights and their virtues. Of the seven commission only five were completed as the artist died and the remaining spaces were filled with portraits of a young Victoria and Albert. The ceiling itself is decorated with heraldic badges, We saw the entrance the Queen uses when she opens parliament and the areas where the Lords can sit and meet the public. The decorative scheme of the Royal Gallery was meant to display important moments in British military history, and the walls are decorated by two large paintings by Maclise each measuring 13.7 by 3.7 metres (45 by 12 ft). The death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar and the meeting between Wellington and Blucher in 1815. Seen as great moments in our history. The panelled ceiling, 13.7 metres (45 ft) above the floor,features the tudor rose and lions. We were shown the damaged part of the door where Black Rod summons the commons by banging his rod against it and managed a peek inside the Commons. Well saw the Speakers Chair minus the speaker in the distance. He must have nipped out for a comfort break . The house was sitting so no chance of going in to watch the antics of modern day cut and thrust political debate. We stood in the division lobbies - aye to the one side and nays to the other. We were allowed in the Lords chamber but warned not to sit in the seats. Not quite sure if we would have been arrested if we parked ourselves in the seats but as we were not nobility we were forced to stand. Even if our feet were killing us or if we collapsed in a faint we could not sit and we would be disowned if we dared to park our bums on the seats. Now perhaps that was why Cromwell wanted rid of nobility then. Apparently Andrew Lord Webber comes in to discuss and vote on anything to do with arts, Melvyn Bragg who was in the building and passed us comes in a lot more and involves himself with anything arty and culture based. No other Lords were about that day.

Our last stop the Central lobby which seemed very familiar as it is the backdrop for the BBC when they transmit anything going on in parliament . The Central Lobby measures 18 metres (59 ft) across and 23 metres (75 ft) from the floor to the centre of the vaulted ceiling. It was one of the most beautifully decorated areas with panels between the vault's ribs covered with Venetian glass mosaics which formed floral emblems and heraldic badges. Each wall of the Lobby is contained in an arch ornamented with statues of English and Scottish monarchs; on four sides there are doorways, and the area above them are adorned with mosaics representing the patron saints of the United Kingdom's constituent nations: St George for England, Andrew for Scotland, St Patrick for Ireland and glory be my own lands saint Saint David. Wales being a principality is not seen much in the paintings or sculptures depicting Britain and is not shown on the Union Flag. The other arches are occupied by high windows, under which there are stone screens—the hall's post office, yes you can buy stamps or send a parcel from there if you want to . In front of them stand four bigger-than-life statues of 19th-century statesmen, including one of four-time Prime Minister local Welshman from Hawarden William Gladstone The floor tiles Minton. A wonderful building worthy of a visit at any time. I believe that the tour costs £25 and takes around an hour to complete. Depending what day you go and at what time of year you can see different things. In the summer recess a visit to the Commons is possible. Loved it and wouldnt have missed it for the world. Thank goodness Guy Fawkes and the bombs of World War 2 did not destroy it forever.

And that ended our visit. The rest of the day was spent in our HQ where the day to day running of ministries take place and we were given an insight to working there . After that we reversed our travel by talking the tube back to St Pancreas and the train home. As we headed north the evening light faded and we were unable to see anything out of the train window. A day where we set out in the darkness and came home into the same darkness. But what an interesting day one that will linger long in the memory even if the photos are not there to prove "I spent a day in parliament".


23rd October 2014
The palace of Westminster

Yummy Perpendicular Gothic!
Excellent tour! Since I'm rather adverse to waiting in long, conga lines and L25 entrance fees, I never visited when in London, but thanks to your fine descriptions, I feel as if I've been there. I was also surprised to see your photo of Cromwell, then realized that since it's outside of parliament (and not Buckingham Palace), perhaps it's to inspire the parliamentarians to remember the common people. Thanks for the fine history of the place too.
24th October 2014
The palace of Westminster

Hi Tara I was lucky to get in free as I am a civil servant and the department of work and pensions were given some dates when staff could go and see the palace of Westminster and visit our HQ Caxton House. Fascinating day and like you I am in love with gothic whether it be medieval or Victorian. all the same to me wonderful and exciting. Cromwell well I was shocked to see it there but what a man. Worth the tour and I would go again but shame I couldnt do any photos inside . If you have read any other blogs you will see that Glenn and I are in love with this style or architecture and love it in France, Spain or Italy .
23rd October 2014

Big Ben
Isn't the architecture at the Palace and other local buildings amazing?
24th October 2014

All I can say is that those Victorians knew how to build in the gothic style. It is our favourite as you will have realised when you have read our blogs on Sienna, Orvieto we hunt out Gothic and feel sad when it has been baroqued .

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