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Rubbing Shoulders With Peers of the Realm

Rubbing Shoulders With Peers of the Realm

Everyone who goes to London sees Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster, the mighty building that's home to Britain's Parliament, from the outside, but only a few take the time to visit inside. While there are all sorts of tours through the Palace of Westminster, it's only been since the early 1990s that tourists have been allowed in its hallowed halls.

England's noblemen and clergy have gathered at Westminster Palace for over 700 years to advise the king or queen. Westminster was, and still is, part of the royal household. For centuries, successive kings and queens lived in regal splendor at the palace.

During its development, Parliament split into two houses — the upper becoming the House of Lords and the lower becoming the House of Commons.

You can purchase tickets for guided tours of the Houses of Parliament that run on Saturdays throughout the year and on weekdays during the summer. Led by qualified and knowledgeable ‘Blue Badge' guides, each takes approximately 75 minutes.

Most of what you'll see on the basic tour centers around the part of the Palace built in the mid 19th Century following a devastating fire in 1834, but the route also incorporates Westminster Hall, begun in 1097 by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror.

The tours start by following the route taken by The Queen at the State Opening of Parliament; from The Queen's Robing Room, through the Royal Gallery and Prince's Chamber, into the majestic Lords Chamber.

Tours then move on through Central Lobby, Members' Lobby and one of the voting lobbies before entering the Commons Chamber, scene of many lively debates.

Passing through St Stephen's Hall, the tours end in 900 year old Westminster Hall, a place where many historic trials have taken place and where Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama have addressed Parliament in more recent years. Run throughout the day, this tour offers a unique combination of history, politics, and art and architecture.

And on your tour of the House of Lords, you'll learn that the House is the most exclusive club in the world. Lords receive no stipend and membership includes free parking and private coat racks inscribed with members' names.

The finest British artists of their day designed the wonderful frescoes, portraits, statues, thrones, fireplaces and furniture that are explored in these 75 minute tours which offer an exclusive experience after the doors close to the public.

In the Prince's Gallery, portraits of Henry VIII's six wives peer down from the walls, as do those of every king and queen since George I. There are sad reminders, too. A book, the pages of which are turned daily, commemorates the 408 peers and officers of the House of Lords and their sons who died during the World Wars I and II. Here, Parliament preserves its earliest acts from 1497. Among the most fascinating is a law regulating shooting with cross bows, limited to Lords only. The Lords passed it in 1512 along with a death warrant for Charles I, signed by Oliver Cromwell.

Tour guides provide bits of trivia, such as the origin of the word "marmalade," which comes from the French malade, meaning ill, and was a dish invented to cure Mary Queen of Scots from an undiagnosed illness.

And it was from the Palace of Westminster that the Pilgrims began the trip that eventually took them to the New World.

Humorous incidents fill the history of this noble house. Prime Minister Disraeli clarified the difference between a misfortune and a catastrophe: "If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune...and if anybody pulled him out, that would be a catastrophe."

The folklore of the House is as intriguing as its members. One of the largest public petitions ever presented to Parliament concerned licensing laws in the 19th century. The completely handwritten petition, including signatures, stretched for nearly eight miles.

And contrary to popular belief, Big Ben is neither the name of the clock nor the clock tower, but the name of the 13-ton bell named after Sir Benjamin Hall.

You can also take a guided tour, led by art specialists on selected Mondays and Fridays, which focuses on art and architecture, led by art specialists, through Portcullis House, the only new building commissioned by Parliament since the Palace of Westminster in the 19th century and designed by leading British architect Michael Hopkins, on selected Mondays and Fridays.

Portcullis House is the home of the House of Commons contemporary portrait collection. This unique collection of art records leading Parliamentarians in paintings, works on paper and photographs. The collection reflects a diversity of styles and approaches by leading UK based artists working over the last 50 years.

As an optional add-on to select Saturday and summer tours, you can take tea in the elegant surroundings of the Pugin Room in the House of Commons, an historic room which provides fine views over the River Thames.