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UK: London – Westminster Abbey & Palace

I spent the first 40 years of my life living in the United Kingdom, much of it near London, but I had never visited the iconic Westminster Abbey and the adjacent Palace of Westminster – better known as the houses of Parliament (along with it most famous feature, Big Ben). I had been past them many times but never inside – so, I thought it was about time to change that on a recent visit to London.

Westminster Abbey

The first place I decided to visit was Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is not a cathedral, there is a Westminster Cathedral, which is a different building, and is a Roman Catholic church. Westminster Abbey is an Anglican church.

Westminster Abbey has long been used for coronations and other ceremonies of national significance. It stands just west of the Houses of Parliament. Situated on the grounds of a former Benedictine monastery, it was refounded as the Collegiate Church of St. Peter in Westminster by Queen Elizabeth I in 1560. In 1987 Westminster Abbey, St. Margaret’s Church, and the Houses of Parliament were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is known that in 785CE there was a small community of monks living on the ground where Westminster Abbey now stands. Edward the Confessor built a new church on the site, which was consecrated on December 28, 1065. In 1245 Henry III pulled down the whole of Edward’s church (except the nave) and replaced it with the present abbey church in the pointed Gothic style of the period. Sometime later the western towers were the last addition to the building. 

The abbey was heavily damaged in the bombings that ravaged London in World War II, but it was restored soon after the war.

Since William the Conqueror, every British sovereign has been crowned in the abbey except Edward V and Edward VIII, neither of whom was crowned. Additionally, Westminster Abbey has a long tradition of royal weddings, beginning with Henry I’s marriage to Matilda of Scotland in 1100. The only other reigning monarch to be wed in the abbey was Richard II, who married Anne of Bohemia in 1382. The abbey was the venue for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.

Many kings and queens are buried near the shrine of Edward the Confessor or in Henry VII’s chapel. The last sovereign to be buried in the abbey was George II (died 1760); since then they have been buried at Windsor Castle. The abbey is crowded with the tombs and memorials of famous British subjects, such as Sir Isaac Newton, David Livingstone, and Ernest Rutherford. Part of the south transept is well known as Poets’ Corner and includes the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson (who was buried upright), John Dryden, Robert Browning, and many others. The north transept has many memorials to British statesmen. The grave of the “Unknown Warrior,” whose remains were brought from Flanders (Belgium) in 1920, is in the centre of the nave near the west door.

With all this history I am surprised by myself having never visited this place virtually on my doorstep! Anyway, it was time to correct this. As I was heading here in June, when tourists, especially Americans, are visiting in droves, I decided to buy my ticket online and get there early. Despite this, I still ended up in a long queue to get in.

The iconic twin towers of Westminster Abbey
A closer-up view of Westminster Abbey's towers
The 'side' entrance to Westminster Abbey, where the visitors enter

Once you are inside you finally get to appreciate the true magnificence of Westminster Abbey. Don’t expect to have a time of solitude to contemplate, unless you are very good at shutting out everything around you – if you have ever visited St Peter’s in the Vatican it is not that bad!

A modern stained glass window inside Westminster Abbey
The Alter

Although I am not religious I love to visit churches and cathedrals. I am totally in awe of the architecture and feats of man to build these magnificent buildings – especially when you consider many of these were built without the aid of modern equipment. One of the areas of a church I particularly enjoy is the choir stalls, which often have the most incredible wooden carvings anywhere in the church. Westminster Abbey is no exception to this.

The choir stalls at Westminster Abbey

A number of Kings and Queens are entombed in Westminster Abbey. As well as this there are numerous commemorative carved stones laid in the walls and floor of the Abbey. I was excited to find the memorials of Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawkings – two amazing physicists who lived centuries apart. 

The final part of the Abbey I visited was another favourite, the cloisters.

Saint Margaret’s Church

Saint Margaret’s Church is located right next to Westminster Abey and across the road from the Houses of Parliament. Since 1614 it has been the official church of the House of Commons. The church was founded by the abbot of Westminster in the early or mid-12th century, but the original structure was demolished in the 14th century. Between 1486 and 1523 it was rebuilt, and galleries were added in 1641 and 1681. Further alterations were made in subsequent periods, including extensive repairs after the bombing raids that devastated London in World War II.

St Margaret's Church is Westminster is the official church of the Houses of Parliament
St Margaret's Church is found in the grounds of Westminster Abbey

Houses of Parliament also called the Palace of Westminster

The Houses of Parliament include the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It is located on the left bank of the River Thames in the borough of Westminster, London. The building is recognised by almost everybody, especially the large tower which most people would call ‘Big Ben’. The tower is actually called the Elizabeth Tower (formerly St Stephen’s Tower) and ‘Big Ben’ is the clock of the tower.

A royal palace was said to have existed at the site under the Danish king of England Canute. The building, however, spoken of by William Fitzstephen as an “incomparable structure,” was built for Edward the Confessor in the 11th century and enlarged by William I (the Conqueror). In 1512 the palace suffered greatly from fire and thereafter ceased to be used as a royal residence. St. Stephen’s Chapel was used by 1550 for the meetings of the House of Commons, held previously in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey; the Lords used another apartment of the palace. A fire in 1834 destroyed the whole palace except the historic Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the cloisters, and the crypt of St. Stephen’s Chapel.

Seeing the inside of the Houses of Parliament is possible to do as part of a tour. This obviously happens when parliament is out of session. You can actually go in when parliament is in session and watch proceedings from the galleries. We decided to join a tour. There is limited availability so you really have to book through a tour company or book directly online. 

When you get to the Houses of Parliament not surprisingly there are security checks to get through, but it is not too bad.

The Houses of Parliament also known as the Palace of Westminster is the centre of UK government

The first place you enter is the impressive Westminster Hall. This is where the tour starts and where you meet your guide.

Westminster Hall has a history all of its own and is in fact nearly “the only part of the ancient Palace of Westminster which survives in almost its original form,” according to the British government. It has served many functions from Royal banquets to courtrooms. The trials of Scottish freedom fighter, William Wallace, and in1606, Westminster Hall was the site of the trial for Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot. It was also the site of the trial of Charles I in 1649. It has also served as a place for prominent British figures lying in State after their death, including Winston Churchill, King George VI and most recently Queen Elizabeth II.

The impressively large Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament

Beyond Westminster Hall no photography is allowed – so text only from this point on!

So, leaving Westminster hall you enter a foyer or rotunda – from the opposite side we entered is the entrance that politicians would come into the Palace of Westminster. Entering from that direction if you turn right you enter the House of Commons, turn left and you enter the House of Lords.

Our tour took us first through the House of Lords, also known as the House of Peers, which is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Membership is by appointment, heredity or official function. No elected officials here! The powers of the modern House of Lords are extremely limited—necessarily so, since the permanent and substantial majority enjoyed there by the Conservative Party would otherwise be incompatible with the principles of representative government.

The House of Lords is very ornate and beautiful in an over-the-top sort of way. The tour itself takes you by the staircase where the Monarch (the King or Queen of the day) enters the houses of Parliament when they come to open Parliament for the year, through the large room where they get ready in their royal gowns, and into the chamber where the House of Lords sits when in session. During the opening of Parliament, the Monarch enters the chamber and sits on the very large throne at one end of the room and the members of the House of Commons cross from their chamber to join in the ceremonies. Another unusual place to park your bum is the Woolsack. The Woolsack is the seat of the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords. It is a large square cushion of wool covered in red cloth and is stuffed with wool brought from around the Commonwealth. The tradition of the Woolsack dates back to the reign of Edward III when the wool trade was one of the most important parts of the economy. 

As I said I could not take any pictures during the tour, but below is a photo I found online to give a sense of what the House of Lords chamber looks like.

From the House of Lords, we crossed over to the House of Commons. Our first stop was the Divisions Lobby, a narrow room with a bookcase of copies of Hansard (the official records of the proceeding of the House of Commons). It is in this room the members of the House of Commons gather to vote. The Division lobbies are the corridors that run along either side of the Chamber in both Houses. They are used to record the votes of members when there is a division. In the House of Commons, the division lobbies are called the Aye Lobby and the No Lobby. The picture below is from the House of Parliament website.

The final stop on the tour was the House of Commons chamber. It looks a bit like the House of Lords chamber, except the seats are green and the decorations are less ornate. 

The guided tour of the House of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) was wonderful. Although we thought we already knew a lot about the function of Government in the UK and about the history of the country’s politics we learned a lot more on this visit. It was also great to be about to visit a place we had seen in the media on so many occasions – it gave us a real chill down the spine!

Planning your visit to Westminster Abbey & The Houses of Parliament

 Address

20 Deans Yd, London SW1P 3PA, United Kingdom (See map).

 By Tube

The nearest underground stations are St. James’s Park (a five-minute walk away) and Westminster (also a five-minute walk away).

 By Train

The nearest stations are Victoria (an 18-minute walk away) and Waterloo (a 16-minute walk away).

 By Bus

Routes 11, 24, 88, 148 and 211 pass the Westminster Abbey entrance. Routes 3, 12, 53, 53X, 87, 88, 109, 159 and 453 also stop nearby.

 By car

Be advised that there are no parking facilities at Westminster Abbey. The closest car park is located on Great College Street, which is a three-minute walk away from Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey

Address:20 Deans Yd, London SW1P 3PA
Website:https://www.westminster-abbey.org/
Telephone:T:+44 20 7222 5152
Hours:https://www.westminster-abbey.org/visit-us/prices-entry-times
Fees:Adult: £27
Adults 65+ Students £25
Child (6-17): £12Child(<5): Free

Houses of Parliament / Palace of Westminster

Address:London SW1A 0AA
Website:https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/
Telephone:T:+44 20 7219 3000
Hours:https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/
Tour Fees:

Adult: £29
Young Adults:: £24.50
Child: £13

Best time to visit London

The best time to visit London is March through May when the temperatures are mild and the city’s parks are green and blooming. However, late spring – along with summer – is also prime tourist season, and hotel and flight prices reflect the surge.

Other places to visit while in London

1. TOWER OF LONDON

Tower of London, byname the Tower, royal fortress and London landmark. Its buildings and grounds served historically as a royal palace, a political prison, a place of execution, an arsenal, a royal mint, a menagerie, and a public records office. It is located on the north bank of the River Thames.

2. MARITIME GREENWICH

The ensemble of buildings at Greenwich, an outlying district of London, and the park in which they are set, symbolize English artistic and scientific endeavour in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Queen’s House (by Inigo Jones) was the first Palladian building in England, while the complex that was until recently the Royal Naval College was designed by Christopher Wren. The park, laid out on the basis of an original design by André Le Nôtre, contains the Old Royal Observatory, the work of Wren and the scientist Robert Hooke.

3. THAMES RIVER

On the banks of the River Thames, London has spread out to become one of the biggest financial, entertainment and trade hubs in the world and in part, this is due to the proximity to this large (and famous) river.

With many of the city’s biggest tourist sites being dotted along its banks, London’s River Thames has a lot of history.

4. LONDON EYE

At 135m, The London Eye is the world’s largest cantilevered observation wheel. It was conceived and designed by Marks Barfield Architects and was launched in 2000.

5. TOWER BRIDGE

An iconic London landmark and one of Britain’s best loved historic sites, Tower Bridge is open to the public 363 days a year. Within the Bridge’s iconic structure and magnificent Victorian Engine rooms, the Tower Bridge Exhibition is the best way of exploring the most famous bridge in the world!

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