Sunday, July 4, 2010

Saturday, July 3, 2010. The Houses of Parliament

The view of the Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge

A few months ago, I bought tickets for the first group of the first day of a new tour of the Houses of Parliament. Only British citizens were allowed to take backstage tours of Parliament. This year they opened it up to us, the foreigners and the colonists. I didn't know any of this when I bought the ticket. I just thought, "Yea! Something that starts before 10 o'clock. The sun comes up at 4:30 in the morning, but no one hits the streets until 9:40-ish. Weird! At 8:30 I left my bed and breakfast, The Jesmond, and started walking down Tottenham Court Road which becomes Charing Cross Road which becomes Whitehall before running right into Parliament. I have to say that I love London best in the mornings when it's just me and the pigeons and the dust bin men. Peace!

Outside Parliament. 
 I never got use to bobbies carrying machine guns!
The tour started with a very thorough, but polite security check. I'm pretty sure I had a body scan! Then we were ushered into the oldest surviving part of Parliament, St. George's Hall. It was constructed in 1000 something or other as a part of a royal palace.  I believe it was part of the original Whitehall Palace, but that might have gotten confused in the sieve of my mind.   This gorgeous hall has the largest hammer beam ceiling in the world.  I'm not sure what a hammer beam ceiling is, but it was very beautiful and very ooooold! Our guide told us that modern engineers don't understand how it stays up, but she assured us that the roof is sound as we all looked up nervously. This hall is where Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth's father, King George, and her mother, the Queen Mother, all laid in state before they were buried. It is also the spot where King Charles I was tried and convicted, but not where he was beheaded. Thank goodness! It was the only part of the building in which we were allowed to take pictures. That was unfortunate because in this case a picture truly is worth a thousand words, and I am running out of adjectives to describe the wonders I saw.

The House of Lords at the annual Opening of Parliament
Most of Parliament burned down in 1830 from an accidental fire. Queen Victoria was on the throne, and Prince Albert had a passion for architecture. Project! He spent the next ten years or so choosing the architect and interior designer and overseeing every detail of the reconstruction. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was just starting, and the Victorians were obsessed with King Arthur and the legends of his knights. The choice of style was obvious! The new Houses of Parliament must be Gothic and must be covered with allusions to King Arthur.
The results -- priceless! Prince Albert and the architects seemed to have culled the best of Victorian tastes. It is elaborate with lots of gold and brass, crimson brocade, and rich textured marbles, but it's not nearly as overdone as some of the Victorian monstrosities I've seen.  Honestly, the Albert Memorial that Queen Victoria built to honor her husband really makes you wonder if she truly loved him or if their love story was just a publicity stunt.  It's that atrocious.

The House of Commons 
The tour was very interesting because our guide knew an incredible amount. Plus, she had one of those lovely, posh London accents. I don't know much about the British government and it seems particularly twisty and eccentric, so most of the details went over my head. But occasionally she would mention a name I knew and I could nod my head and look like I understood what she was talking about. What I found interesting was the marked difference between the two Houses. The Houses of Lords was very grand, very ornate. The House of the Commons was relatively plain. Bit of snobbery there? Ironically, the House of  Commons is the one that gets all the attention. It's the one we see on t.v. sometimes, with the avocado green leather benches. When we went through, they were cleaning the green leather benches with Q-tips!  The cleaners, who are really conservationists, complained that all the new MP's didn't know yet to be careful where they put their ball point pens when they sat down.  They had to have a special day just to carefully remove the pen marks from the historic leather.  I love inside gossip! 

The central area between the two Houses.
The ceiling was amazing.
To be fair, the House of Commons was bombed to smithereens during the Blitz. It was rebuilt right after the war when the government was skint, flat broke. A lot of it was rebuilt with small donations from regular people like us. I guess it will take time for it to become as exalted as The Lords. And, maybe the common, elected representatives like to have a little visual separation between themselves and the toffee nosed Lords.

I ended the day with some shopping at Harrod's. Whew!  They were having a 50% off sale.  I think everything was 50% off because it was a madhouse!  Remember those movies from the 1950's set in New York where the lead character, like Doris Day, would go into the city for a sale of Macy's.  Inevitably, she would get pushed around by the sale-mad crowds, someone would end up yanking a dress right out of her hands, and her perfect hair would end up completely, but beautifully, demolished.  Well, that's exactly what it was like!  In addition to all this craziness, The British seem to like shopping to very loud music.  It's like trying to shop while you are at a disco.  I don't get it!  Maybe this atmosphere is suppose to create an  adrenaline pumping, let your inhibitions down, party atmosphere.  But, all it created in me was anxiety!  I did make sure I saw most of the store before I gave into my impulse to leave. 

The food halls were incredible!  They had the most beautiful produce I have ever seen.  Every piece looked like it had been hand picked, hand washed, and hand polished.  The Japanese tourists were swarming around the watermelons, making loud, astonished comments, and taking pictures.  Just before I left for this trip, I saw a show on the Food Network that mentioned that watermelons are VERY expensive in Japan, especially the big, old fashioned kind we grow in this part of the country.  They can cost as much as fifty dollars in Japan!  I'm glad I knew this.  Otherwise I would not have understood why these travelers looked so amazed at watermelon.

The strange memorial to Diana and Dodi in Harrod's
To get to the food halls, you have to go to the bottom floor on the escalator.  There at the base of the elevators is the tribute to Princess Diana and her last boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayad.  (I'm sure that spelling is not right.)  Doti's father is the current owner of Harrod's.  He was very upset when Diana and his son died in the car crash in Paris.  He even accused Prince Phillip of arranging a hit to kill Diana and his son because they were about to embarrass the crown by announcing their engagement.  To honor them, he had two life size statues made of them looking into each others eyes and holding a phoenix or eagle between them.  It's creepy!!!  I couldn't look at it very long, but lots of people were taking pictures and throwing coins into the little water feature next to the statues.  I think part of the weirdness was because the rest of the hallway is decorated in an Egyptian theme.  Right behind the statues is a Pharaoh's head with full paint.  The hall was decorated in black marble with gold Egyptian trim.  It was strange and didn't make sense.  Why a tribute to Diana in a department store?  And, why in an Egyptian hall?  Very weird. 

I'm glad I went to Harrod's.  It was an experience!  But, give me an American mall any day.


This is the clock that covers the bell, Big Ben.

Inside St. George's Hall, the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament.

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