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Houses of Parliament

Feature by Lizzie Guilfoyle

THE PALACE of Westminster, or Houses of Parliament, as it's more commonly known, was built between 1840 and 1888 to replace the original (dating from Edward the Confessor's time) that, with the exception of Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower, was destroyed by fire in 1834.

The magnificent gothic revival that we know today, was the work of Charles Barry whose design reflected that of nearby Westminster Abbey; while the Victorian detail of the interior, was the inspiration of Barry's assistant, Augustus Pugin.

It is, of course, the seat of British government and has been since around 1550 but what few people realise, is that it's still a royal palace - even though the last residing monarch, Henry VIII, moved out in 1512. The royal apartments do, however, remain.

Viewing the exterior, particularly from across the river, two towers are especially prominent. One is, of course, the 320ft high clock tower, known affectionately as Big Ben.

Big Ben is, however, the name of the tower's largest bell, which weighs a massive 13 tons. It was cast in 1858, at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, in east London, and to this day, remains one of the largest bells ever cast there.

Each of the four clock faces is over 7m in diameter and contains 312 separate pieces of glass; while the four minute hands are themselves, 14ft long.

Yet surprisingly, in this age of high technology, it's something as simple as old pennies that are used as counterweights to ensure Big Ben keeps time to the nearest second.

And when Parliament sits at night, a light known as the Ayrton light, burns in the clock tower above Big Ben.

The second tower, the Victoria Tower, is at the opposite end of the building and houses the Parliamentary archives. It's from here that the Union Flag flies whenever Parliament is sitting.

Work first began on Westminster Hall as far back as 1097 and it was William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, who was largely responsible.

Measuring 240ft by 60ft, it was, for many years, the meeting place of the Royal Courts of Justice. Outside its door, stands a statue of Oliver Cromwell, a fitting reminder that it was here, in 1653, that he was sworn-in as Lord Protector, following the untimely demise of King Charles I.

It was here, too, that Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were tried and convicted of high treason in 1606.

Although both Houses are involved in legislative procedure, they have separate chambers.

The House of Commons chamber is actually quite small - so small, in fact, that although MP's number 659, there are only seats for 427. Consequently, when important issues are debated, members are forced to squeeze into benches or even sit on steps.

Benches are arranged on either side of a table, with the party of government to the right, the opposition to the left.

Government ministers and those speaking for the opposition sit in front and are known as frontbenchers, with the rest, the so-called backbenchers, behind.

The Speaker, who controls proceedings, sits on a raised chair at one end of the chamber. Benches and carpets are green, the traditional colour of the House of Commons.

In the Lords' chamber, however, the 250 benches are red, its traditional colour and although arranged in similar fashion to those in the Commons, they are not specifically allocated.

The Speaker, or Lord Chancellor to give him his correct title, sits not on a chair, but on a Woolsack, a large scarlet cushion filled with wool - a tradition dating back to the middle ages, when wool was England's largest export.

Also in the Lords' chamber, is the throne from where the Queen speaks to both Houses during the State Opening of Parliament.

Tours which include both chambers, as well as other areas of interest, are available when Parliament is in recess.

Tickets are also available for Prime Minister's Question Time (Wednesdays 12 - 12.30pm) but only through an MP or embassy.

The public galleries are open weekdays and are accessible via St Stephen's Entrance.

Fancy a summer tour? Buy tickets here!



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