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Tuesday, 11 September, 2001, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Visiting Parliament
Houses of Parliament
Westminster has seen many chapters of UK history unfold
With the politicians away for the summer, for a few weeks only tourists are now able to take a trip round the Palace of Westminster, BBC News Online's Ben Davies joins the parliamentary tour.

Visitors to London are faced with an ever expanding number of options of things to see and do but nothing can be seen as more central to British life than the Westminster Parliament.

This summer, for the second year in a row, tourists are offered the opportunity to see the Lords and the Commons.

One thing any visiter discovers quite quickly is that much of the Palace of Westminster - so-called because it used to house monarchs up until the reign of King Henry VIII - is actually much newer than it appears.

Fire of 1834

In 1834 a fire swept through the original palace after someone overfilled a furnace.

As a result, of the original medieval building only Westminster Hall survives.

The current building, with that exception, was designed by Charles Barry and built between 1840 and 1852.

The result is an ostentatious monument to the Victorian era.

Robing room

When the Queen arrives for the State Opening of Parliament she comes in a carriage which is driven straight through the Sovereign's entrance where she is greeted and then ascends to her Robing Room.

The Queen's Speech
The Queen delivers her speech from her throne in the Lords
But not having a horse drawn carriage to hand mere visitors have to walk through the entrance.

The Robing Room - where the Queen puts on the state robes and imperial state crown ahead of delivering the Queen's Speech - is used for little else.

The next stop on the tour is the Royal Gallery which has been used in the past for foreign heads of state to address both Houses of Parliament.

The room is notable for two large paintings depicting British victories over the French at Trafalgar and Waterloo.

This fact was nearly embarassingly overlooked when the French President Charles de Gaulle was due to give a speech.

Lordly pomp

While little on the tour thus far could be described as 'plainly decorated' nothing in the earlier rooms will prepare people for the House of Lords chamber.

The focal point of the chamber is the Queen's throne which she uses when delivering the Queen's Speech.

The throne and its canopy were designed by Augustus Pugin and can only be described as an extravaganza of gold leaf.

In front of the throne is the woolsack which the Lord Chancellor sits on when he is chairing debates.

By tradition MPs are not allowed to enter the Lords although on the occasion of the Queen's Speech, they are allowed to stand behind the barrier at the main entrance to the chamber which is technically not in the upper house.

The Commons

Dividing the two Houses is the central lobby - a place where British citizens can come to meet their member of Parliament.

House of Commons
The Commons elected every four or five years
The Commons side of Westminster Palace is markedly less ostentatious than the Lords and is approached via a corridor off central lobby which leads to the Members or Commons Lobby.

This contains statues of Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and David Lloyd George - all notable prime ministers.

Curiously MPs can still pick up a pinch of snuff from the doorkeeper on their way in - a hangover from past times as are the places where members can hang their swords.

Visitors are then taken into the Nay lobby where MPs walk through when voting against a particular bill or motion.

The other side of the chamber is the Aye lobby. One of the reasons MPs still use this archaic system, called a division, is so they can mingle with colleagues as they vote.

Two swords' length

To the right of the Speaker's chair are the government benches, currently occupied by Labour and to the left are the opposition including the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

The two sides are divided by a space that is exactly two sword-lengths apart - a throwback to the days when weapons were routinely carried.

Speaker Michael Martin
Speaker Martin presides over the House of Commons
From the Commons, the tour then makes its way down towards the St Stephen's entrance.

This is the site of the original Commons chamber from 1550 until the fire of 1834 destroyed the building.

Nowadays it is not much more than a corridor leading from the street to Central lobby, although there are a series of statues of previous parliamentarians.

Braveheart's trial

The final stop is Westminster Hall which is part of the original medieval building.

It was built in the 14th century but incorporated much of the original material from an earlier building on the same site.

Westminster Hall's historic legacy includes famous trials of William Wallace, Braveheart to fans of popular culture, Charles I and those responsible for the Gunpowder Plot.

In recent years it has seen the laying in state of Sir Winston Churchill and a speech by Nelson Mandela to both Houses of Parliament.

Parliament is open until 29 September 2001

See also:

09 Aug 01 | R-S
State Opening of Parliament
20 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Queen arrives to open parliament
24 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Speaker's election sparks reform calls
23 Oct 00 | UK Politics
The new Speaker: Michael Martin
13 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Commons speaker re-elected
12 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Madam Speaker's career
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