Explore the hallowed chambers from which we are governed without leaving your sitting room.

These are strange days in a myriad of ways. One aspect of how that peculiarity finds expression is in the typically well-populated spaces that now stand deserted, save perhaps for the odd lone soul. There is a certain poignancy to them: the empty stalls in the theatres, where carefully rehearsed shows will now not go on; the railway stations where no one waits for still-running trains; and the tourist attractions where, ordinarily, people jostle for photographs, now abandoned and unbothered by camera flashes. And then there are the Houses of Parliament, that crucible of power, intrigue and ordinarily a thrumming hive of human activity.

Since Covid-19 took hold, that seat of power, if not quite deserted, is now sparsely populated by a handful of public servants rattling around its gothic walls, the usual incessant chatter eerily absent. And while you could, of course, take a virtual tour at any time, now seems an apposite moment: firstly, there’s no question of actually going for a real tour any time soon; and secondly, it is fascinating in this time of crisis to consider the chambers where decisions on our fates are made – now and always.

The tour is excellent, and divided up by room. Chronologically speaking, the Norman Porch is a good place to start any tour, despite that it contains none of the statues of key Norman figures architect Augustus Pugin had intended for its interior, instead featuring busts of Prime Ministers who went on to become peers. However, its significance remains undiminished; the steps that lead to the Norman Porch are known as the Sovereign’s Entrance, for this richly carved ‘Royal Staircase’, marks the start of the processional route taken by the Queen at state openings of parliament. It is from this room that Her Majesty proceeds to the neighbouring Robing Room, where she dons her Imperial State Crown and ceremonial robes in preparation for the opening of Parliament from her throne in the House of Lords, which signifies the, typically annual, moment that all three aspects of parliament come together: the Crown, the Commons and the Lords. Significantly, in this room where the monarch prepares, a facsimile of the Magna Carta sits unobtrusively in a glass box, serving as a reminder of the first move away from absolute power.

Do also roam digitally around Westminster Hall, the oldest constituent part of the predominantly Victorian Houses of Parliament. If its walls could talk, their thousand-year tale would be epic in scope and unparalleled in incident. For, more than any other single building, its stone walls, built in 1097 (the magnificent wooden roof was added in 1399, later restored by Sir John Soane) have borne witness to a millennium’s worth of nation-shaping events and played host to everyone who has ever been anyone in British politics. It is here that Guy Fawkes, William Wallace, Thomas More and Charles I fates’ were sealed, each tried and sentenced to death in this room. It is where Richard II was deposed; where King Henry VIII and later Elizabeth I’s coronation banquets were held; where George IV, George V, Winston Churchill and most recently The Queen Mother lay-in-state; and where the great and good have addressed the houses, from Nelson Mandela to Barack Obama. Its constant evolution during that time is underlined by two recent additions: the Diamond Jubilee window at one end, given by MPs to Queen Elizabeth II in 2012, and New Dawn at the other, a 2016 artwork commemorating the unwavering efforts of the women’s suffrage movements to establish equal votes for women, which shines brighter and dims in accordance with the tides of the Thames, and whose colours echo those of each suffrage movement.

That the hall survives at all is thanks to some judicious and ruthless decision-making. For when, in 1834, the Exchequer, then based on the site of parliament, needed to burn two cart-loads of tally sticks, relics of an out-dated accounting system, the Clerk of Works made the fateful decision to carry out the task in two under-floor stoves in the basement of the Lords. Fast forward a few hours and the upper house was ablaze, followed, inevitably, by the rest of the palace; to make matters worse, the fire-boats stationed on the Thames could do little but watch in horror as the river’s low tide thwarted any attempt to deliver water. The decision was made to sacrifice the rest of the building to save Westminster Hall. Naturally, the fire was front-page news, covered by all the papers, including by a young reporter named Charles Dickens, as well as being immortalised in paint by one JMW Turner. For some Victorians, the blaze was divine retribution for the earlier Great Reform Act of 1832, a change to the electoral system as divisive then as Brexit is today.

Yet the jewel that emerged from the wreckage only serves to add interest and layered history to the experience. In large part, that is thanks to Charles Barry, an architect born down the road from the Houses of Parliament, who won the ensuing competition in the wake of the inferno. His triumphant design cleverly ushers visitors through a thousand years of history at Westminster Palace, starting with the Normans who built Westminster Hall. In his task, he enlisted the help of a young Augustus Pugin, the Gothic Revivalist architect chiefly responsible for the interior of the building. Neither man would see the end result, which only partially adhered to their original design; both had died by its completion some 30 years later in 1870.

Then, of course, there are the two houses. The House of Lords, the upper house, famously characterised by its red leather seats where lifetime (plus 90 hereditary) peers, sit in what must be seen as Pugin’s masterpiece. It is here that his vision has been most fully executed, reaching its resplendent apotheosis in the dais-mounted Royal Throne, a gilded affair based on the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey. From here, the Queen delivers her speech (written by the serving Prime Minister), with Prince Charles and Princess Anne positioned on either side of her. But before she does, one of Parliament’s most striking traditions must ensue.

This is the moment that Black Rod, a senior officer in the House of Lords (currently held by Sarah Clarke), is despatched from the upper house to the Commons to summon MPs to the Queen’s address. Tradition dictates that Black Rod should bang on the Commons’ door, which is slammed as a symbol of the lower house’s independence. After three more bangs, the door is opened and the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition make deliberately slow progress to the Lords, obliging the Queen to wait, symbolising that the true seat of power in the country lies with the commons (no sovereign has been allowed to set foot in the Commons in an official capacity since the reinstatement of a diminished monarchy after the Civil War).

Anyone exploring the room should note the Woolpack, in front of the throne, upon which the Lord Speak sits; a 14th-century innovation, it reflects the economic importance of the wool trade to England, its stuffing – newly packed in 1938 – made up of wool from each country in the union, and in the Commonwealth. Elsewhere, significant details include armorial bearings of monarchs from Edward III onward, statues of the barons and bishops present at the sealing of Magna Carta; and a stained-glass window showing coats of arms of peers, a replacement for the Pugin original lost in WWII, which had depicted the monarchs of England and Scotland.

If the Lords is the most ornate room in the palace – a detail at variance with its current ambitions to modernise – the Commons, in its signature green, is almost strikingly plain. Between 1548 and the fire in 1834, St Stephens Chapel, once the palace chapel at the most important royal residence (the palace of Westminster was the monarch’s principal residence in medieval times), was the debating chamber of the Commons, until Charles Barry reimagined it as the public entrance to parliament and shifted the Commons to its current location.

The lack of decorative detail is made up for in the atmosphere that pervades here, keenly felt in the Members Lobby, the ante-room for the Commons, where MPs gather before the house sits and where journalists interrogate them on the developments of the day. To enter the Commons, MPS must pass under a blackened archway, known as Churchill’s Arch which, at Churchill’s suggestion, was reconstructed from bomb-scarred stone after the original was damaged in the Blitz, a symbol of the country’s fortitude during the war. To underline the point, on one side stands the imposing figure of the wartime PM, flanked on the other by his First World War predecessor, David Lloyd George, whom the observant will note stands atop an extra plinth, to redress how diminutive his statue appeared in comparison to Churchill. If you look closely, you will notice that one foot of either statue is slightly worn, the relic of countless MPs touching them on the way in for luck.

A gaze around the room reveals more full-length figures of ex-PMs, from Clement Attlee, who presided over the creation of the NHS, to Margaret Thatcher. The latter is notable for being the first full-length statue erected in a PM’s lifetime, given on account of having been the first female PM, and re-elected three times. Famously, at its unveiling, she was non-plussed at the choice of material; iron, rather than bronze, would have befitted her famous sobriquet, the ‘Iron Lady.’ Today, there is a drive to represent more women in the lobby, although the chances of Theresa May making the cut remain minimal for now; a bust of John Major marks the last Prime Minister to have been immortalised in this room, his successors deemed too controversial for the honour.

Once inside the Commons, despite its relative plainness, there are a number of remarkable features. The first is the arrangement of the room, which dictates opposing politicians duly sit facing the opposing side, a continued tradition that can be attributed to Churchill. After its hit in the Blitz, there was some discussion of a circular redesign, but the wartime PM discouraged it, preferring the more confrontational style of politics, in the belief that it encourages debate. Indeed, rough and tumble appears bound up with being an MP; only the front bench have reserved seats, the others jostling for position on busy days, since the house cannot accommodate the full compliment of members (the committed place ‘prayer cards’ on seats prior to a debate, signifying that they will be there for the pre-session prayers – the only way in which they can reserve a spot).

For any visitor entering the House of Commons digitally or in person, the gaze naturally falls on the spot where the PM sits, for it is the precise seat from where so much national history has been made. Here, the observant will note one very human touch; the worn edges of the despatch box, where impassioned, or perhaps nervous, Prime Ministers, standing with their backs to their own, not always friendly party, have steadied themselves during rigorous debate.

Also noteworthy are the Speaker’s Chair, which once featured a curtain so that that its incumbent could use a commode rather than leave the room when indisposed; a series of plaques along the back wall in honour of MPs who have died at war; and poignantly, a small coat of arms at the back row on the left, above which reads the legend: ‘More in Common,’ a tribute to the assassinated MP, Jo Cox, designed by her children. When in session, the Sarjeant-at-Arms, the Commons’ equivalent of Black Rod, ensures that the Mace is present, a symbol of Her Majesty the Queen.

These rooms skim the surface, but even seen virtually, they give a glimpse into the building from where so many decisions that govern our lives are made – whatever you think of them. And there’s nothing like wandering – albeit virtually – around the chambers imagining what we might do or say if we were in the hot seat ourselves.

By Nancy Alsop
May 2020


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Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.