Visit the Houses of Parliament For Free
As regular readers of this blog will know, I live in London. I’ve been lucky enough to live in some quite amazing places and one of those places happened to be quite near to The Houses of Parliament. I remember once visiting the guys who live in the flat above me and they had a roof terrace that had an unrestricted view of the HoP and Big Ben (well, The Elizabeth Tower). That’s pretty darn close if you ask me!
I do love the look of the buildings and have wanted to visit them for ages. The amount of history the wall contain, plus how the building is so not in keeping with the others in the surrounding area, just wows me every time.
What are the Houses of Parliament?
A bit like ‘Big Ben’, its not actually called the Houses of Parliament. The correct name is The Palace of Westminster. It is where the two houses, House of Commons and House of Lords, meet as the parliament of the United Kingdom. It was first built in 1016 so is now well over 1000 years old, however it was demolished after a fire in the 1830’s and was completely rebuilt in the 40 years after this. The Gothic style of the architecture is instantly recognisable but as I said above, almost a complete juxtaposition to the surrounding buildings. Of course, the Houses of Parliament came first and its very lucky that it stands as one of the many historic London and worldwide landmarks.
Visiting the Houses of Parliament
Anyone can visit the HoP. For £28 per person you can turn up and have a guided tour which takes you on a 90 minute amble through the houses and some of the adjoining rooms. I’m sure this is certainly worthwhile doing however at over £50 a couple it seems quite expensive. £50 would buy a lovely meal for 2 in China Town or even get you a couple of theatre tickets so, to promote my London Moneysaving ideas, I thought I’d look into a cheaper way to visit.
Visiting the Houses of Parliament for Free
You can save yourself the entire cost of the tour by using this neat trick. We live in a democracy and part of that is that as people in the democracy, its very important that we are able to understand how this democracy works. The Members of Parliament, to support our understanding of this, are able to offer us Democratic Access Tours. These tours last 75 minutes and take a very similar journey to the paid-for tours. The benefit of the Democratic Access Tour is that it is free!
How to Arrange Your Democratic Access Tour
This is quite easy. Follow these steps
- Contact Your Local MP. – Check out this link to find out who represents you.
- Write them a Polite email. Attached is what I sent, including information liek how many people it is for and where you live (to confirm you live in their constituency)
- They should reply back with available times (they replied within 2 days for me)
- Tell them what session you’d like (the more flexible you are, the more possible dates you could be offered)
- You will be sent a list of appropriate dates, choose one.
- Your visit should then be confirmed.
- Some tour permits should be posted out to you.
All this for me was completed in Less than a week.
Attending Your Tour
Your tour permits should arrive with instructions on when to arrive for your tour but also how early you should get there to make sure you can get through security quickly. This is a place of business and is the political centre of the United Kingdom so expect a beefed up security. We were quickly through though, without much of a wait. You start the tour in Westminster Hall. This is the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, dating back to 1097. I was amazed at the size of it but also the design of the roof – although not from the 11th century, the architecture needed to build the supporting roof structure is amazing. As part of the tour we learnt that there is hidden metal-work now supporting the roof so we can relax during our tour that the ceiling wont be falling in on us!
Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos on the tour once we left Westminster Hall. Annoyingly, while we were on the tour there were LOADS of people taking photos everywhere. Most of the time it was by people with HoP Access cards but they certainly looked more like selfies than official photos! It was a real shame as I loved some of the design features we saw during the tour.
We traveled along corridors and visited both Houses. Our tour guide did a great job of including all the people on the tour and even kept the younger members interested. One room was surrounded with coats-of-arms and he asked the kids if he could recognise any football team designs. I’m sure there was an Aston Villa one up there, as well as an Arsenal crest.
There is a room for the Queen to waiting before the opening of Parliament. Its called the Robing Room and I was facinated by how pristine the room was kept. In my opinion, the most amazing feature was the ceiling, although others may disagree. It has an impressive design that really blew me away.
House of Lords / House of Commons
The two Houses of Parliament were also a bit of a shock. On television they look much bigger than they are in real life. We were able to visit both as neither were sitting during our visit. I’ve watched quite a bit of Prime Minister’s Questions and the House of Commons is generally packed out but on other days, it looks so empty that you don’t realise how small the room actually is.
The Lobbies of both houses were interesting. Both had ‘pigeon holes’ for letters and I’d have thought that this would have stopped years ago (when was the last time you worked somewhere that had individual pigeon holes for post?). Of course, the lobbies were both in dark-wood paneling – there is so much tradition that remains in the HoP and this is reflected in the working areas that we toured.
The final point of interest from the tour was a visit to the area where MPs cast their votes. They are called ‘Divisions’ and they pass through what looks like turnstyles where each MP can vote. These are called the ‘Aye’ and ‘No’ lobbies and once again, tradition controls this process, with the members having to tell someone their vote and their vote is manually recorded as they go past. Not a system you’d design today, but it is a system that has been in place for such a long time within the Houses of Parliament.
End of the Tour
The tour ended back where it started, in Westminster Hall. I was facinated by what the tour had shown me and our tour-guide did an excellent job. We had wanted to go visit the cafe to grab a drink but our tour was a late-afternoon one and so the cafe had closed. The gift shop was open but nothing there really jumped out at us. As we made our way back outside I felt that the tour had given me exactly what I wanted from it; to understand a little more about our parliamentary process but also see the rooms and places that these decisions had been made.
Would I do the tour again? No. The one thing I would like to see is more of the Palace of Westminster. The MP’s offices, the bar, some of the more architecturally interesting areas. I even found out recently that there is a Rifle Range for the House of Lords. Things like this facinate me and I’m sure there are plenty of other secret rooms/places within the Houses of Parliament that it would be great if a person like me could go see.
If you enjoyed this blog post then please check out my post about great free things to do in London where you’ll find plenty of other interesting London things (like seeing pelicans) that don’t cost any more.