London, Day 7

I know I’m going out of order here, but . . . here goes:

Today dawned brightly sunny, actually — a change from the cloudy, drizzly weather we had been experiencing for the past few days. We didn’t need to fight our way on to any train cars first off, since our destination was right in our own neighborhood: Westminster Palace. This is where the Houses of Parliament are — the House of Commons and the House of Lords — and the famous Big Ben clock (also known as the Elizabeth Tower).

Big Ben at Westminster Palace
Big Ben at Westminster Palace

We got up just a bit earlier than usual since our tour started at 9 a.m., and directions on our tickets required us to be there at the Cromwell Green entrance gate at 8:40. Noah and I set off, grabbed a bagel and a baguette for breakfast on the run, and made it to our line to wait to be led inside. (I also got a Tropicana OJ to drink. It was “Smooth, Without Bits” which made me chuckle — that means without pulp, just the way I like it. The cashier also dropped Thing 1’s bagel, so he got another one. [He wanted me to add that.]) The streets were nice and quiet since it was so early on a Saturday morning.

Once we entered the palace, we were put through a security screening and given special lanyards to wear with visitors passes on them. We were directed to the great hall, where we met our guide. The hall is used on occasion when a visiting head of state addresses Parliament, or when someone important lies in state preceding a funeral.

Marker noting the location of Winston Churchill's casket as he lay in state after his death.
Marker noting the location of Winston Churchill’s casket as he lay in state after his death.
Markers noting the location of King George VI's casket as it lay in state after his death, and the casket of his queen, Elizabeth, several decades later. (She was the current Queen Elizabeth's mother.)
Markers noting the location of King George VI’s casket as it lay in state after his death, and the casket of his queen, Elizabeth, several decades later. (She was the current Queen Elizabeth’s mother.)

Anyway, our guide was a cheerful woman who had been a guide at the palace for twelve years. She was dressed sort of how I would dress: a dress worn with leggings and flats, and she even had purple-magenta hair! (Rather than having highlights in certain sections of her hair like mine, hers was an overall weave throughout her hair. My first impression was, “Oh! Just like Keeping Up Appearances [an old BBC show], here’s an older English woman with purple hair! But, really, she’s more than likely just a funky, cool grandma type.) She took us first into one of the House of Commons committee rooms, where smaller discussions of policy are held, but no votes taken. The chairs were upholstered in a lime green leather, which had the Houses of Parliament symbol on them, green being the color associated with the Commons. Here we were allowed to sit a bit while she gave us some history behind the palace, including how it isn’t that old of a building. Construction started early during the reign of Queen Victoria, after the earlier Palace of Westminster (home to kings up to Henry VIII) burned down. So, it is actually “newer” than our own U. S. Capitol Building in Washington, D. C.! Queen Victoria never intended that it be used as a palace to live in, nor was it ever used as a church, despite all the stained glass. That’s what Westminster Abbey was for, literally right across the street!

Moving on, we went to the hallway and steps that the Queen walks up when she comes to Westminster Palace for the State Opening of Parliament each year. (I show my students a video clip of this each year, so it was awesome to be standing in the exact location and seeing it for myself.) We then “followed” the path she would take if we were her and preparing to enter the House of Lords. She first goes into a Robing Room, and here she puts on her crown (which we saw in the Tower of London) and her red cloak. She spends about ten to fifteen minutes in here. It has high ceilings and is covered with paintings detailing scenes from the tales of King Arthur. There are also wooden reliefs of Arthurian scenes carved in English Oak below the paintings. Our guide told us that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, headed an arts commission that decorated the palace. Each room had different themes, and the theme for this room was chosen because the Arthurian legends were some of Victoria’s favorites. Also, the paintings all illustrate some value like Honesty or Bravery, which he thought a monarch might like to be reminded of before entering the House of Peers and going “on stage” and playing his or her role. (I could not take pictures of any of this, as photography was prohibited.)

From there, the Queen moves into a large room, which is sort of like a House of Lords “lounge” room. It is large, and it has seats and tables set aside for peers to sit in to take a break from the actual House Chamber. They could catch up on reading in here before a vote, for example, or network with other peers. All of these seats and tablecloths are in red, as that is the color of the House of Lords. (We were not allowed to sit in these seats.) The art included in this room was of paintings done of the monarchs at the time of their coronation, so there was a lovely portrait of the current Queen in her youth on the wall next to one of her father, King George VI. This is also the room that functions as a sort of “receiving line” room for those lucky enough to be invited to an opening of Parliament.

From there, the Queen enters one more room before actually entering into the House of Lords. I loved the art theme of this room, as the theme was The Tudors — Henry VIII and his relations. There were paintings on the wall there of him, his six wives, his children, his cousins, his grand-nephew, James (who would succeed his second daughter, Elizabeth, as monarch), and more. These paintings were all completed by students, believe it or not, back in the day, not famous painters. The students had to research what his or her subject looked like according to primary source documents of the time, and create the painting based on that.

Then it was time to enter the House of Lords. The seating is “adversarial” which means that opposing sides face each other rather than sitting in the round or in a horseshoe shape. Again, the benches that lords (aka peers) sit at is upholstered in red leather, and there are not enough for all of them. (For larger sessions, or when a head of state is visiting, the hall where we entered is readied to hold a larger capacity.) There is an upper viewing gallery, which peers may also sit in when finding a seat down below is difficult. The chair that the Queen sits in is present in the room, as is the one her heir sits in, which today is Prince Charles. Prince Philip’s chair wasn’t there, but he sits in one slightly (ever so slightly) smaller than the Queen’s and right next to her at State Openings. From her seat, the Queen reads her speech, which was never actually written by her. The Prime Minister (and his party) writes it, and she must read it exactly as it is written. Exactly! She is not allowed to skim ahead and skip over the parts she personally doesn’t agree with!

Interestingly, from where the Queen sits, it is possible to look directly through the building to the opposite end (providing all doors are open) to where the Speaker of the House of Commons sits in the Commons chamber. This was done very intentionally, I believe, and it is very symbolic. Because, as important as she is, the Queen has no power. She is a ceremonial figurehead, and the real running of the country takes place in the House of Commons. She may not even enter the House of Commons, nor any member of her family. Police (considered agents of the monarch) who provide security at the palace, are not even allowed to enter the Commons chamber while they are in session.  The Commons has a special Sergeant at Arms who, with others, provides security. It may appear that the Commons and the Lords are in opposition to each other — and the layout of the building might suggest this — but they also both work together to run the country.

It was time to switch the focus of our tour, then, to the Commons. When the Queen is situated in her chair, she nods to a man waiting in the central hall between the two chambers — called the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, or just Black Rod — and this indicates to him that it is time to summon the House of Commons to the House of Lords to hear the reading of her speech. (Just a few of the elected MPs [Members of Parliament] can actually fit into the space allotted to them at the back of the House of Lords, and they are expected to stand. The Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition party are always at least two of those there for the reading of the speech. According to our guide, the rest veer off and out into one of the numerous bars or pubs in the area for a celebratory drink.)

Anyway, as Black Rod makes his way to the House of Commons chamber, the door is actually slammed shut in his face. It is a ceremonial snubbing of the House of Lords, to show that, for all of the grandeur that is in the House of Lords (including the monarch), it is really the Commons that runs the show. He raps on the door three times with his black rod. We could really see the indentation in the door from years and years of this happening! It was awesome as, once again, I show this to my students, so to see the actual divot in the door was amazing. (This was one of Thing 1’s favorite things to see, too.) The door opens, and he delivers the Queen’s summons to join she and the other peers in the House of Lords; the MPs then shamble on over making a raucous noise as they go, until they enter the other chamber to hear the speech.

The House of Commons is also set up in an adversarial style, with the majority party always sitting to the Speaker’s right hand. The opposition party sits to his left. The major leaders from each side always sit in the first row of benches; members with less seniority, or from minority parties, sit in the benches behind and are called “back benchers.” There is a large table in the middle, on which are two boxes, called dispatch boxes, with microphones in front of them. When the prime minister (or the opposition leader) gets up to speak, he or she may lean on the box as s sort of podium. In the middle of both boxes, at the end of the table, there is usually a large gold mace. Sessions can not be held unless the mace is there. (It was not there when we visited, of course, because it was Saturday, and there were no scheduled sessions.) The mace is a symbol that the monarch has given up his or her power to the Commons. If it is not present, business cannot take place. It is the only essence of the monarch allowed. As with the Lords chamber, there is a viewing gallery in the back, and anyone may come to watch debate taking place. There’s much less room available, though, than is available in our capitol building for constituents.

From there our tour ended and, because we started earlier than most mornings, we had a lot of time to spend before museums and shops closed at six. We went back to the hotel to figure out what we wanted to do and how to get there. I used the Yelp and CityMapper apps to help us with this. We finally settled upon a place near the National Gallery called The Lord Moon of the Mall (crazy name!), which was close to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. When we got there it was packed, and one needed to pounce upon a table as soon as one saw a table open up. It just so happened that another duo wanted a table at the same time as Thing 1 and I, so we ended up sharing. The couple that we shared the table with were Sicilian, and one spoke more English than the other. In English pubs, once one secures a table, the next step is to head to the bar to actually place the order and get drinks. Don’t wait for a server to come around to take the order. I told the bartender which table we were sitting at (No. 55), and our food arrived pretty quickly after. Noah ordered a “classic hot dog” which was really more like a large sausage in a bun calling itself a hot dog. But Noah was happy with it and ate nearly every bit of it. I ordered a typical English meal (sausage and mash, which is mashed potatoes with some sausages on top, gravy, and green peas).

Thing 1's "classic" hot dog, which was really a large sausage calling itself a hot dog.
Thing 1’s “classic” hot dog, which was really a large sausage calling itself a hot dog.
My "bangers and mash" which was actually pretty good! (Sausages with mashed potatoes, gravy, and peas.)
My “bangers and mash” which was actually pretty good! (Sausages with mashed potatoes, gravy, and peas.)

We had nice conversation over our meal with the Sicilians and then we parted ways. Noah and I headed off to the National Gallery so that I could view a few choice paintings.

Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, dedicated to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, fought against the French (and Spanish) during the Napoleonic Wars. It was a victory for the English, but Nelson was shot and died shortly after the win.
Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, dedicated to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, fought against the French (and Spanish) during the Napoleonic Wars. It was a victory for the English, but Nelson was shot and died shortly after the win.
Thing 1 and I at Trafalgar Square, which is directly in front of the National Gallery.
Thing 1 and I at Trafalgar Square, which is directly in front of the National Gallery.

The National Gallery is nowhere near as large as the Louvre, thankfully. They have The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan Van Eyck, which I talk about in my history class when we get to discussing Northern Renaissance artists. I got to see it in person, along with Van Gogh’s sunflowers and a painting by Seurat. I think I’ve decided Seurat is my favorite painter. My favorite of his, Sunday Afternoon at the Grand Jatté, is in Chicago, but similar paintings with scenes and the style nnsimilar to that one were at both the National Gallery and at the art museums we visited in Paris. Thing 1 was NOT excited to visit another gallery, but he humored me so I could see these great ones.

Our final stop of the day was the Museum of London. We hopped on the Number 23 bus, drove past St. Paul’s Cathedral, and headed toward the museum. This museum told the history of just London, from its pre-Roman settlements, clear through to the 20th and 21st centuries. We had to speed through the very ending section of the museum in order to visit the gift shop, which was closing shortly. Thing 1 got a Mind The Gap London Underground t–shirt and I got an umbrella with a map of the Underground on it. (I don’t have my own umbrella at home, and supposedly we’re going to have a wet winter with El Niño? Who knows, but I’m ready!) I love the Underground logo. It’s simple, moddish, and overall esthetically pleasing to me.

Since we had a big lunch, neither of us was hungry. We stopped by the train station (Waterloo) to buy the train tickets we’d need to get ourselves out to Stonehenge. That is our destination for Sunday, 13 July. It is necessary to take a train to Salisbury, and then take a bus to the Stonehenge visitors site, which is approximately 10 miles outside of town. Train tickets were some of the most expensive so far! It cost £56 (about $95.86) round trip, on a Sunday (off-peak). Even the tickets to Canterbury (almost same distance) cost only £26 (about $44.51). I didn’t ask why. The ticket sellers have been less than cheery here. Not mean or rude, really, but just not chirpy. I imagine they get sick of dealing with stupid questions from myriads of tourists like me. There must be some good reason. That settled, we hit the McDonald’s for a soft serve cone, jumped on the 507 bus, and headed back to the hotel — another successful day! (Which, by the way was our warmest this week with a whopping high of 80.6 F, or 27 C.)

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