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Published: February 3rd 2020
Palace of Westminster
Dominating all visitors
My big day went even better than planned! Not wanting to get lost yet again, I took the main roads - Euston (a few blocks out of my way) and Tottenham Court Road, which morphed into Charing Cross Road. Magic happens (according to the map) at Trafalgar Square and with the help of “You Are Here” signs, I found my way to The Palace of Westminster
, a.k.a., the Houses of Parliament. By leaving well in advance of what Google told me, I arrived within the recommended 30 minutes for security before my tour. Which took maybe two minutes.
An exhibition celebrating the centenary of Votes for Women
was in the Great Hall, good for early tourists. The exhibition was easy to follow and very informative. I had read several books set in the time of the Pankhursts
and was fascinated to see artifacts from the time, including a WSPU
Sash, coincidentally in the colours of Leeds University. Emily Davison
was portrayed as a heroine with fierce dedication, although she was castigated and denigrated in 1913 for throwing herself in front of the King’s horse during the Derby. After decades of suffrage ground work, WWI was the catalyst for giving some women (property owners over 30) the
vote, because of their huge part in winning the War, as well as the rest of the men (non-property owners and under 30). Even so, Winston Churchill was against it. A small section of the display showed postcards and a “man-ish” wooden doll, all part of the strong anti-vote campaign. Getting the vote was insufficient to effect much change, and about half the exhibition dealt with the still ongoing work to achieve equality for women.
At the tour desk, our guide, Barbara, introduced herself to about fifteen people and checked our tickets carefully. Considering there was an attack at Westminster only last week, the security was reasonable.
For me there was a contretemps over photography. Barbara instructed everyone to turn off their cell phones and said she would let us know when they could be turned on, if someone wanted to take a photo. I thought she was concerned about the WiFi transmissions, plus she said nothing about cameras and must have seen me taking photos. Some rooms were explicitly posted as “no photos”. Suddenly, in a room where I saw no sign, a big security guard gruffly questioned me, “Did you just take a photo?” “Yes.” “Come
with me.” He took me just outside the room and asked to see the photo (a highly decorated ceiling) and told me to erase it while he watched. I hardly ever use the erase function on my camera, but I did remember it well enough. He didn’t like the next one either (a particularly good one of a bust of Wellington) but was ok with one of a stained-glass window. I naively asked if no photos at all were allowed; he rebuked me because there were signs “everywhere” and told me to put my camera away. I did, and he returned me to the tour group. Barbara didn’t bat an eyelash.
The Great Hall is the oldest and largest part of Westminster Palace. The original palace was built as a residence by King Edward to enable him to oversee the work on Westminster Abbey. The current Great Hall is all that remains of a subsequent palace that was destroyed by fire early in the reign of Henry VIII, who moved into Whitehall. Over time Westminster Palace came to house the Commons and the Lords. In WWII, sixteen bombs destroyed the House of Commons (rebuilt without change); the Lower House
Edward the Confessor
builder of Westminster Abbey
of Parliament moved to the Lords Chamber, and the Lords moved to another for the duration of the war. The Royal Rooms (non-residential) were reached by the monarch walking up a wide, plain, stone staircase about two storeys high; the current Queen’s age is now accommodated by a lift. Her robing room is ornate with gold embellishments everywhere. She puts on the heavy robes of state and processes through an equally ornate hall with her entourage behind her. She reads the throne speech, usually under fifteen minutes, and retires to remove the oppressive weight. This year, a complete change startled royal watchers. At the opening of the parliament, following Theresa May’s disastrous snap election
, the Queen wore a dress and coat and a hat that might have been decorated with symbols perhaps pertaining to the EU. Unprecedented commentary?
The House of Commons inside is plain - a political statement concerning the difference between the Lords and the people. The parliamentary room cannot seat all the MPs. While the seats of the highest politicians are dedicated, only the scheduled speakers for the day can reserve a seat; all others must fit in as they can, if they are present. Each bill is submitted to
a “division”, in which those in favour (“content”) exit through one door to a specific hall and those not in favour (“not content”) exit through another door to a separate hall. In each hall, they line up to give their names. Quite different from the roll call in the Canadian parliament.
Statues of successful past-politicians are in many halls, corners and ante-rooms; the statues on display are changed occasionally, as voted by the House of Commons. In the most favoured locations were Churchill, Atlee, Peel and Thatcher.
At the end of the tour, we descended to the Great Hall (where photos were permitted) and out into the sunshine - excellent for exterior photos. I couldn’t see any cafés or restaurants; however, I wandered into Victoria Tower Park and made a picnic of all the snacks in my pack.
I had just enough time to enter Westminster Abbey
, across the street from the Palace. (With a timed-entry ticket, I didn’t have to wait 25 minutes in the non-ticketed line. I overheard that the wait in the morning was two and a half hours.) The ticket-taker offered a fully-guided tour for five pounds in addition to the nineteen pounds already
New Dawn 2016 by Mary Branson
Celebrating Votes for Women - finally!
paid. After a few moments thought, I forked over more money. Best money I spent on this holiday!
Benjamin, an Abbey curate, was a great story-teller, who delighted in questions, yet kept us on track. Seeing other tourists wandering around bewildered, I knew that his commentary would help me easily learn about the building’s history. The original building commissioned by King Edward was Norman, i.e., curved arches. Later, Henry III, who adored the earlier Edward (sanctified as St Edward the Confessor) started building the current Abbey in a strange but fortunate process of destroying part and rebuilding it; the first stage was from the altar to the grand entrance. About half way into the project, he ran out of money; over two hundred years passed before the current, “late English perpendicular Gothic” building was completed. This style is characterized by fan pillars, the same as in Winchester Cathedral
In the middle was the most ornate choir “screen” - wide enough to accommodate the pipe organ console on its top, and, during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, a 37-piece orchestra! Westminster Abbey originally was a Benedictine
monastery, and the screen’s purpose was to separate the enclosed monks from everyone else; eventually the
Westminster Victoria Tower
overlooking the restful Victoria Tower gardens
adjacent St Margaret’s Church
was built for the common people, because they were too noisy when in the Abbey! The Quire, for the choir and lesser services, was directly behind the screen. Far to the back was the elaborate, gilded altar; the great distance was to accommodate the ceremonies of a coronation. The crowning of a monarch must be witnessed by all the lords and officials, which required a lot of seats. Elizabeth’s coronation included over 8000 invited guests, many seated in stadium-style risers, never again to be seen in the church, if only for health and safety reasons.
Behind the altar are the tombs of the most honoured monarchs, in particular the shared tomb of Elizabeth I
and her hated half-sister Mary
, and the highly decorated tomb of Mary Queen of Scots
– both tombs arranged by her son, James I. In a marble box are the bones considered to be of the two boy Princes
reputedly murdered by Richard III
, although the truth is unknown. These great queens were the last bodies entombed at the Abbey, because of space. Only ashes are buried now and most etched stones in the floor are memorials, not graves. We saw the newest stone etched for Stephen Hawking
in a beautiful representation
Westminster Abbey entrance
Across the street from the Palace of Westminster, facing away
of his work on black holes. Near his stone are those for Darwin, Herschel, and Newton. On the other side of the nave are the memorial stones for great writers (nick-named Poets Corner), in particular for Chaucer, Shakespeare, and George Elliot, the only woman I saw.
Our guide, Benjamin, helped with my intention to attend Evensong. He told me that queue formed at 4:30 near the scientists. By the time our tour ended, the staff were subtly directing people out of the Abbey, even though it was half an hour from closing time. I asked a docent about the line, and because I had been on a tour, she was able to let me sit in the nave until time to form the queue. I sat right near the front and for maybe five minutes I was completely alone. In the nave of Westminster Abbey! About 4:00 another docent led in the visiting choir from Delaware. She impatiently rehearsed with them the precise manner in which they were to enter for Evensong. They disappeared behind the Quire Screen, and presently they rehearsed singing with the organist – a concert in itself. At 4:30 the docent invited me and a
View of the place of the altar and royal tombs
lot of others to queue; my place was second from the front, an important place according to Benjamin. Beside me was a woman from Florida, who had paid the full ticket price (unnecessary for services) just to get this position in the queue. Close to 5:00 a curate indicated we should follow, and as hoped, I was shown to the best seat - in the Quire at the altar end, first row. Most of the hundreds of people who came subsequently sat in chairs placed in the coronation space. The music was ethereal. The organ was majestic, and I kept thinking about the joyful gasp on the face of the Mulroney son who was a page at Prince Harry’s wedding in Windsor. That was my reaction here!
The congregation left the church through the main glass doors. The sun was perfect for photos. While everyone was milling about, unwilling to depart, a choir member (in street clothes) spoke to me because he had seen me crying and hoped it was from joy not sorrow. Actually, it was because my sinuses were making my eyes tear, but I didn’t feel like saying so. He may have seen me desperately coughing
Thames from Westminster
London Eye in the distance
as silently as possible into my handkerchief and could have thought I was sobbing! I praised his choir for the beauty of their music and mentioned my own choir tour.
Part of me wanted to walk back to the hotel in the evening sunshine, but another part considered that I had been on my feet most of the day. That part took the underground, although the journey in rush hour took almost the same time as walking. Fortunately, I had a seat all the way. For dinner I went to a Bangladeshi restaurant near yesterday’s and had spicy Lamb Sag with nan and red wine.
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