Thursday, 17 October 2013

31. Wonder: The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (part 1)

(For the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben preview, please click here.)

If you want to see the Houses of Parliament, it's pretty simple. Go to London and take the tube to the Westminster Underground station. Walk up some steps and bam - there it is. The clock tower of Big Ben and the gargantuan Palace of Westminster - the Houses of Parliament by another name - stretching behind it, along the banks of the Thames. But if you want to actually visit either, it's a different story...

One of the running themes of these Wonder travels is that the function of a Wonder is usually just that - as a Wonder. Although many of the world's grand structures were built with a purpose in mind, over the years that purpose has become redundant and they have simply become impressive and evocative spectacles, for tourists to poke around in and take pictures. I mean that in a mostly complimentary way. The Colosseum, for example, is hardly used as a amphitheatre of killing these days, but remains deeply impressive despite having not served as such in almost two millennia. It's an astonishing vision: visitors will obviously want to gawp at it. Even cathedrals, which are still used for regular religious worship, are more packed with tourists than worshippers at almost any given time. They are as much visual spectacles as they are genuine houses of worship (and to be honest, I think if I was a pious believer, I'd much prefer to pray in a quiet local church than a massive beast filled with a brigade of bum-bags).

But the Houses of Parliament are nothing of the sort. They are easy to see, much harder to visit. Vast and timeless, designed in a style that didn't pin them to the neo-Classical craze of the 19th Century but to a less definable period centuries earlier, they are a unique and, for a visitor to the city, frankly unmissable attraction. It is not a structure which is easily confused with any other, in the whole world. But being an attraction is very much a secondary role for the Houses of Parliament, for this venerable Wonder of London is too busy to cater to the busloads of tourists, it has bigger concerns. Such as running the country.

As such, visiting the building that is the beating heart of British politics needs a little planning. It is not an attraction open to the casual passer-by. In my case, short of standing for parliament myself, the easiest route was to go via my MP, a Labour politician called Tom Harris. The process began way back in January, when I emailed him. His assistant, Russell, replied, and dealt with all the correspondence. The tours - separate ones for both parliament and Big Ben and entirely free of charge - can be booked up to three months in advance, so in March he got back to me with the good news that he'd got myself and Danielle a tour of the Houses of Parliament, no problem at all, for the end of June. But Big Ben was less straightforward - it was utterly and completely booked. He confided in me that he had never managed to get anyone a place on the Big Ben tour before - limited numbers and high demand mean it's a coveted tour to join. (Also, let's be honest, I'm not sure how interested the populace of Glasgow South really have in visiting the clock tower.) I explained, however, that I was fairly committed to going, and Russell pulled a blinder. Staying up till midnight one night in July, he applied for and secured me a spot on an October tour.

So, two tours. One of the Houses of Parliament in June with Danielle, and one of the clock tower of Big Ben, with a substitute Danielle (she couldn't take the time off work), a friend called Mike.

Let's start with the Houses of Parliament. More properly, I should call it the New Palace of Westminster as it used to be (and technically still is) a royal palace. From the 11th to the 16th Century, it was the primary residence of the kings of England until being damaged by fire in 1512. It wasn't destroyed, but the king at the time was Henry VIII and he wasn't very pleased. Not exactly a man bound by sentiment, holding neither religion or marriage as being terribly sacred, he didn't feel too duty bound to his half-burned royal palace. He moved into the brand spanking new St James Palace, just up the road, in 1532, thus ending centuries of royal living at Westminster Palace.

Henry VIII might have abandoned it, but the Palace of Westminster was a lot more than just a king's home anyway. For centuries, it had also been the seat of parliament. This went way back to William the Conqueror's time in the late 11th Century. The word "parliament" derives from the French parler, "to speak", which is appropriate as William the Conqueror, one of England's most famous kings, was essentially French. He set up a King's Council which was basically a team of advisors made up of worthy lords. This evolved to the House of Lords, which exists to this day. Actual parliament came later, in Edward I's time. He called 16 different parliamentary meetings, comprised of lords and landowners, in his 35 year reign, and during this time inevitable factions formed. These factions divided into the Commons and the Lords, and by 1332 the two groups were meeting separately. The idiosyncratic British government system was born.

So the government system and the history of the site dates way back, but pretty much everything we see today dates from the mid-19th Century. In 1834, the most devastating fire in the palace's history more or less destroyed it. My preview covers it more fully, but it was one of these fires that is so comprehensively devastating it actually becomes a lucky break. Instead of just patching up the holes, an entirely new building had to be built. Which was just what everybody had wanted. The old Houses of Parliament had been an ancient, shabby, collapsing series of buildings that simply wasn't fit for purpose. They were too cramped, too hot, and absolutely stunk from the Thames which ran thick with effluent and garbage (you have to go back a long way to find a nice, clean Thames). Plans had been drawn in the early 18th Century for something new, but shelved due to war, and so the fire solved rather a lot of hassles in one swift blaze. Over the next few decades, the purpose-built New Palace of Westminster appeared, packed with over a thousand rooms, a hundred staircases, eleven courtyards, two miles of passages, a few hundred statues, and covering an area equivalent to about four city blocks in New York. And it looked great.

The Houses of Parliament tour begins, as it happens, in just about the only original part of the whole palace, in Westminster Hall, which sits askew from the otherwise neat right angles that comprise the overall structure (it's kind of top centre-right in the below plan).

It takes a bit of a queue and some routine security to get to, but it's an appropriately grand meeting point for the tour. In fact, for normal citizens such as myself, it's the only part of the entire palace that I am free to walk around in. Danielle and I made the most of this, by going to the adjoining cafe and having a coffee and a biscuit. We really wanted a bacon roll or something breakfasty, but the cafe seems to only do cakes and scones. For myself, I don't count this against a Wonder, but Danielle has a far more cafe-based criteria than I, and I'm sure bumped off a point or two. Mind you, at least it had a cafe. She spent most of her time wandering around Agra Fort in abject horror at its lack of coffee-related facilities. I do worry about our trip to Machu Picchu in a couple of months.

The cafe is a relatively new addition. It certainly wasn't part of the original hall, built by William the Conqueror's son and successor, William Rufus, between 1097 and 1099 (cafe culture wasn't in vogue back then). Most of that hall is gone, and we see now the hall built by Richard II between 1394 and 1399. It survived the great fire of the 19th Century, as well as numerous other fires; it has survived terrorist and war bombings, neglect and decay, and being eaten by death-watch beetles. It's a survivor. Today we see simply a big, grand open space, which has undergone extensive repairs and renovation in the last century - but it looks the part. Being a simple gathering place for visitors, with an adjoining cafe and a small parliament-related giftshop in one corner does seem like a bit of a comedown for the hall though. Over the centuries, it has been used for celebrated state trials, such as William Wallace and Guy Fawkes. Oliver Cromwell took his oath of leadership there - and had his head stuck on a pole on the roof for over twenty years when it all went wrong. It has been used for grand state ceremonies and feasts fit, quite literally, for a king. Winston Churchill and, fairly recently, the Queen Mother were laid in state there upon their deaths. It is dripping in history and prestige. But it also finds itself in a kind of slumbering retirement. There is simply so much history than only the rarest, grandest events seem appropriate. Thus, the vast majority of the time it simply lies empty, except for waiting visitors and a makeshift shop selling spurious items to be put at the back of someone's cupboard. It's an ignomious end for Westminster Hall.

Our tour group of around 15 people gathered, and our tour guide, a pleasant but slightly intimidating lady with an air of the hockey fields or the military, led us into the main building. We were not the only tour - at least three other sizable groups passed us by several times, one full of kids in their early teens who were not attempting to hide their boredom. It would seem that children's passions nowadays are not set alight by the political and architectural history of our nation's seat of power. Who'd have thought?

The tour passes through corridors and into grand rooms, packed with grand and austere paintings. In fact, everything is grand and austere: the statues, the decor, the furniture, the doorways, the doors, and so on. It could be described as over-the-top, but I don't think it is, or not in a bad way. It gets away with it. Because, in its own way, it's all relevant. The pictures all reflect key moments of national history, the statues are all of kings or politicians who changed our country. It's pretty fabulous. A rapper might build a mansion and pack it full of expensive art and fabrics, but it's all a bit shallow and meaningless. But the Houses of Parliament, lest you think otherwise, was not built by rappers, it was built by the Victorian age, a ferociously ambitious era of both science and art in which tastes were formed that endure today. The rappers (and I don't mean to pick on rappers, but if you've ever seen that MTV show about "cribs" then you'll know what I mean), in their own way, were influenced by the Victorians.

The level of detail is quite astonishing, and is far too much for a 90-minute tour. Really, you'd need to spend a morning and afternoon at leisure wandering around and soaking in the carved wood, the endless monarchs, the vast oil painted scenes, and the sheer sense of importance that exudes from the walls. To explore the entire building (surely less than a tenth is seen on the tour) would take days. The highlight is visiting both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. To most British people, these are very familiar scenes, the former moreso than the latter. So familiar, in fact, that walking into them seems just like walking into a film set: a little unreal. Both are rectangular rooms, not at all large, packed with two sides of seats, with the House of Commons being in green and the Lords being in red. The Commons is packed full of microphones hanging low from the ceiling, and I was unexpectedly reminded of my visit to Istanbul's Blue Mosque, 12 years ago, and the numerous low hanging chandeliers. Photos weren't allowed, so I've had to find one from the internet, which isn't terribly good but it gives you the idea.

The similarity pretty much ends there though - the mosque is supposed to bring to mind the glory of God, whereas the House of Commons is specially designed to bring about an intimate, adversarial atmosphere. Most parliaments around the world are designed much larger, often in semi-circles, designed in some manner to facilitate a sense of cooperation. Not the House of Commons. There are only 427 seats for 650 MPs - and this isn't a case of bad planning. As with most things in Britain's quirky political system, you have to go back a bit to understand why. The general layout of the room comes from its origins as a chapel. After the fire that saw Henry VIII move out, a new House of Commons was built following the old ground plans of the chapel, with rows of seats either side, facing each other. The great fire of 1834 destroyed this, but it was rebuilt - with added decor and vigour - in the same manner. And in 1943, during the Blitz of the Second World War, the House of Commons was again destroyed by fire, this time caused by a bomb. There was a possibility to rebuild it in a more modern style, but backed by Churchill it was agreed to rebuild it as it was - deliberately too small, with standing room only for big debates. The reasoning being that most of the time MPs are away on other business, so the House of Commons is often virtually empty. A smaller chamber maintains a higher level of intimacy in debates. Churchill also believed it maintained the two party system, which has underpinned British democracy for centuries (whether you like it or not). "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us," he said, and he was right. Even at the last election, when the Conservatives were forced to join forces with the Liberal Democrats to maintain a majority, the option of having three competing - or cooperating - forces in government was barely contemplated. It was seen as unworkable - despite the fact that the rest of the world seems to get by just fine. In British politics, it's us against them, and the very building itself conspires to keep it this way.

We had hoped, after the tour, to be able to get tickets for the once-weekly Prime Minister's Questions and witness the adversarial system firsthand, but these tickets are very hard to come by. Instead, Danielle and I took a slow wander around the outside.

You can pump a building full of power and meaning and history, but that doesn't alone make a Wonder. A Wonder needs to be big, and usually with a sense of grandeur. The Houses of Parliament has all this - it's a striking building. It's not subtle and it doesn't want to be. A sprawling, pointy mass of horizontal and vertical lines, it runs for 265 metres along the river bank, balanced out by a tower at each side - Big Ben is 96 metres high, marginally smaller than the 96.5 metres of Victoria Tower. Big Ben is obviously the clock tower, and the Victoria Tower stores the parliament's archives, but the middle tower, curiously, does nothing at all. It was built for ventilation at the insistance of a charlatan scientist, who used up vast amounts of time and money getting an entirely useless air-con system installed before politicians eventually figured out that he had no idea what he was talking about. Too late though, as most of his stuff had been built, including the middle tower, at the expense of a huge, grand lobby. I think it looks pretty good, but its functional redundancy and embarrassing history means it is hardly ever mentioned, and it's never managed to get a name beyond the highly prosaic "Central Tower".

One feature of the Houses of Parliament that I don't think I've ever seen mentioned is the colour. The Houses of Parliament is a kind of light sandy brown colour. This is a colour I would more associate with ancient temples in Egypt, the sandy brown of sandstone. But it's built from good old limestone, just like most of the other grand old buildings of the Western world, and just like most of London. But all these other buildings are grey. The stone of the Houses of Parliament comes from a quarry in Yorkshire, and was chosen basically because it was cheap. That it was sandy coloured didn't appear to come into the equation. But the impact, I feel, is huge. Sure, the building would stand out anyway, but being an unusual shade further stamps its identity against the rest of the city. It gives an already original structure another distinctive edge.

I could go on, but I should probably move onto Big Ben. As I've gone on for long enough here, I'll give myself and anyone reading a breather and continue in part 2, for my final conclusions about The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben as a World Wonder.

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