Parliament’s hidden gems

My internship allows me a fair number of places around the Palace of Westminster, so I’ve been trying to see as much as possible before it’s all over…

Like many students, for GCSE history I was taught how the suffragettes campaigned for women’s votes. A few weeks ago I visited the Parliamentary chapel. This chapel has an important place in suffragette campaigning.

You enter the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft via Westminster Hall (the oldest building on the Parliamentary estate) and descend down a staircase. The chapel is beautifully painted and very ornate, complete with columns of Purbeck marble (for the interest of the geologists…). Adorning the ceiling are depictions of the instruments of torture: someone being stretched out on a rack and a woman being boiled in a pot (I presume she was accused of being a witch). Behind the organ is a large wooden door, this leads to an antechamber off which there is a tiny broom cupboard. Emily Davidson, a suffragette, hid there all night before the 1911 census so she could legitimately record her address as the House of Commons. A truly remarkable achievement, which is now justly commemorated by a plaque on the door of her hideaway.

The Palace of Westminster is a lovely old building with many stunning rooms. During the start of my internship I attended some Select Committee oral evidence sessions hosted in beautiful rooms, but my favourite place so far is the House of Commons Library. The library is comprised of four rooms, all wooden clad with large windows looking out onto the Thames. The rooms act as a corridor, with one room opening into another, it’s almost like walking through a museum. I attended a workshop in the library on ‘Brexit and the Environment’. It was an interesting discussion with great speakers talking about the impact of Brexit on climate change agreements and EU Environmental Directives. Unfortunately only MPs are allowed to work there, otherwise I would have relocated for a couple of days of my internship.

Another interesting room is the Pugin room, renamed in 1978 after the architect Augustus Welby Pugin. The MPs dining room (a few doors down the corridor from the Pugin room) was opened to the public during dissolution (when all the politicians were off campaigning). This gave my family and me the chance to sample the MPs food and have a very pleasant pre-lunch drink sat in the window of the Pugin room overlooking the Thames. If we have another snap election, I’d highly recommend checking the Parliamentary website to see if they offer lunch again! – the Lords dining room also opened up during dissolution!

The Palace has an enviable central London location, so not only are the rooms inside lovely but it enjoys stunning views across central London. One sunny day, I climbed the stairs to take-in the fabulous roof top panorama of the Elizabeth tower (aka Big Ben) on the roof of the Palace. Standing up there you can see the beautiful Whitehall buildings and the newer London skyline, with the London Eye and the ever-baffling ‘cheese grater’. It looks a great place to have lunch!

Unfortunately the Palace of Westminster is in need of restoration, renewal and repair. It is an old, historic building and not immune to the ravages of time. During my three months here, scaffolding has slowly crept up the outside of the Elizabeth Tower and along the front of the Palace. The tower is closed to visitors until 2020 and even inside the palace at the heart of all Parliamentary activity there are visible signs of lots of little repairs and patches.

With my last week coming up, my team asked if there’s anything I haven’t managed to see or do yet around Parliament… I think I’ve just about managed all the key bits that were on my list! From the archives to the chamber, the Post Office to the hairdressers, and a whole range of cafes and bars. I have had a wonderful opportunity to explore the Palace and Parliamentary estate.

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