Houses of Parliament Tour
Cost - £15 for a single adult
Time taken - 2hr 15m from arrival at venue to being back on the street afterwards.
I got to Westminster at 9.30 a.m. and as soon as you leave Westminster tube station the HOP are straight in front of you, so it's an easy find. However, when you get to the series of check-in desks which you would assume would be there for you to buy your ticket you are then redirected across the road to the back garden of a house behind Westminster Abbey. You then have the bizarre scenario of an old stone building which has had plexiglass dividers rammed into it's three small windows manned by HOP sales staff. Once you manage to obtain a ticket (they were struggling with complicated computer systems and a lack of English as a first language and managed to take 10 mins to sell me one adult ticket for a tour in English) you then go back to the apparantly redundant check in booths at the HOP. A word of warning, I was able to get through this process relatively quickly because I got there early before the real crowds arrived but later in the day I saw the queues to get tickets stretching for a good 100 yds outside of the normal queueing area. Once inside you are immediately whisked through the most thorough security check I've ever encountered, which is to be expected given the high value of the venue as a terrorist target. You get taken through scanners, have your picture taken, have your baggage x-rayed and your pocket contents examined. However, the security staff are very personable and try and make this experience as painless and swift as possible. Then, you're in. From ticket-buying to security clearance and ready to start the tour took 30 mins only, although as I say, this was helped by my arrival time, so I definitely advise early arrival if possible.
The tour begins in an enormous stone hall which legend says Henry VIII used for tennis, and which, as one of the very few non-specific area to British politics in the building is where foreign speakers such as Nixon and the Pope have addressed Parliament. It was also used in days gone by as a court of law which saw the execution ordered of Anne Boleyn and the place where Churchill was laid in state before his funeral. It is also the only area in the HOP where photos are permitted, again for security reasons. There you meet up with your tour guide. Everyone has to go round with a guide and you are counted at regular intervals to make sure nobody has wandered off with anything ticking to leave as a present around the building.
One thing you are advised immediately is that as you go through the building, you will see a number of things with the "Wow" factor and the tour takes you around everything in time, but because of the number of tour parties going around it's not always possible to stop at the item of interest, but whatever you miss on the first pass, the tour guide will make sure you get to see them on the way back. Unfortunately this doesn't always filter through to the other members of thr group for whom English isn't their first language. Our tour guide, a formidable lady of a certain-age named Elaine, who spoke in beautiful crisp English but with a brusque undertone that made it clear you didn't mess about on her tour, was patient with some of the questions but there were a couple of eye-rolls aimed towards the few Brits in the party when she had to explain yet-again why we weren't stopping at an obvious point of interest because there was already another party there, but that we would stop there eventually. She was fantastic in her knowledge of the building and it's history and protocol and her manner was perfect for a tour of this nature.
Our first stop in the main building was the staircase the Queen uses to enter Parliament and give her annual speech to the House of Lords. You really feel the history all around you, with the busts of Prime Ministers past such as Wellington overlooking the corridor, and the architecture and the splendour are exactly what you would expect from a building with such a past. You then pass through more anti-rooms, each with a history and a tale to tell, from a threadbare throne which has been in the building since it was used by Queen Victoria, to the more modern lounge used by members to entertain visitors.
Then you're into the House of Lords which has the very practical wood and leather seating and modern addition of wall mounted cameras and hanging microphones contrasted to the majesty of the golden throne reserved for the monarch on her rare visits to the House of Lords. It's a place of great solemnity and history, so when an Italian girl of 17 or so passed by the throne with another tour with a skirt so short you could tell what she'd had for breakfast the look of mortification on our tour guide's face was worth the entrance fee alone.
Following this, you then move from the Lords into the House of Commons and you pass by the dented door that Black Rod knocks on every year and then go into one of the corridors that MP's use to vote "Yes" or "No", stopping to see the famous "Gladstone Bag" which was finally retired from budget duty. Then you come to the highlight of the tour, the House of Commons, with the famous benches used by politicians of the day to debate great issues and squabble like children in equal measure. My first thought was that it was much smaller than I expected but you do get drawn into the history when you realise that it's not just todays brand of faceless, tv-friendly Eton clones that use this chamber, but you are looking at the seat that Churchill ran our country from, and the room he made so many of his great wartime speeches in and then you get a real sense of the majesty of the room. The tour then takes you back into the original stone hall where the tour began and allows you to visit the obligatory coffee shop and giftshop before leaving. Ducking those options, I left and was on the street again at 11.45.
Overall, I would highly recommend a visit to the HOP to anyone interested in either politics or history. I definitely felt that I got my moneys worth and it satisfied my curiosity about one of our nations great buildings and what goes on there. I definitely wouldn't recommend it for young children or even elder children who aren't interested in history. Because of the tour nature and the carefully managed security you can't listen to the tourguide and try and entertain a bored child at the same time and simply wandering off or letting them play by themselves for a minute or two is not an option. I wouldn't take my kids in there, and I wouldn't advise any other parents or children under the age of 10 or so to either, because they won't appreciate it and to be honest unless your children are in the 1% of kids that are content to stand quietly and listen on a slow walk around an old building for an hour and a half, they'll spoil the experience for you and everyone else on the tour. For adults though, if you haven't already been, I personally think it's a must see.