Something which I now thoroughly recommend if you're in London during summer and have the opportunity is doing a tour of the Houses of Parliament. It's totally tourist of course – in our tour group of about 20 there were only 2 British folk – but it provides a fascinating snapshot and insight into British rule.
The Houses of Parliament (or Palace of Westminster, as it's formally known) as they stand today were built around about 1852 following the destruction by fire in 1834 of the previous palace (except Westminster Hall, which was built in the late 11th century). So it's not particularly old. It's built in the Perpendicular Neo-Gothic style, much like the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest (bet you didn't know THAT, did you !).
That's all very interesting of course, but what really gives the place a personality is the interior, and the rules & history that go along with the places.
We entered through the Sovereign's Entrance, up some stairs and into the Robing Room – this is the room in which the monarch gets dressed in their robes in preparation for the procession into the House of Lords for the annual opening of Parliament. Worth mentioning that the stairs have these wierd little rig-things sticking out of the wall-part – that's for sliding in the rod that holds the FRICKEN RED CARPET IN PLACE !!! Anyway, it's just past the Robing Room, in the Princes Lobby, that the first glimpses of mirrors & string become visible. At first glance it would seem right to assume that this place, being the seat of government for one of the world's great nations, would be absolutely immaculate – given the British propensity toward heritage and tradition. The Princes Gallery is panelled with portraits of previous monarchs & consorts – as our guide put it, “suitable subject matter for the monarch to view whilst robing for the opening of parliament” – however it turns out that Barry, Pugin & co who built it (presumably in an effort to reduce costs) got students to produce the paintings in this room. Most of them are accurate representations it seems, however a couple of them are just plain wrong ! Anne Boleyn (2nd wife of Henry VIII) is depicted as a quite portly blonde, whereas in real life she was a slim flatchested brunette – turns out the student producing this one had simply copied the wrong picture from the book. But up on the wall it went anyway ! And then the one of Lady Jane Grey depicts her as an older woman, which is a little difficult considering she was beheaded at the age of 16. So here we are, in an ornate gold-plated room for the monarch's use, SURROUNDED BY HALF-ARSED MISTAKES !
Anyway, you walk into the House of Lords, and there's the big gold throne thing that the monarch sits on, and then this weird fence thing – and the monarch's not allowed to go any further into the building ! Of course because Britain doesn't have a Constitution, it seems like everything's pretty well made up, so the only reason the monarch doesn't go further is convention & tradition.
What else was there… just past the House of Lords (which only seats a couple of hundred of the 697 Lords in existence, by the way) is the Royal Gallery. A huge corridor of a room, it's prominently decorated on the sides with huge murals commissioned by Prince Albert, which depict important moments in the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar (painted by Daniel Maclise). The rest of the room has random statues and portraits about it, and it seems this is because Prince Albert died shortly after the two large murals, and nobody else was that keen on Maclise's work, so rather than commissioning the rest of it which was intended to cover the entire perimeter they just said “Thanks Dan, that'll be lovely”, and ad-libbed the rest.
This room is used to mingle with foreign dignitaries from time to time but given the subject matter of the paintings, every time French hierarchy are invited over the murals get covered up by massive red velvet curtains, just so nobody's embarrassed by 10 foot high reminders of how England thrashed the pants off the French about 200 years ago.
Next in progression is the great octagonal Central Lobby – decorated with huge mosaics of the 4 patron saints of the countries making up the United Kingdom (at the time). And then off into the House of Commons, where all the work's apparently done.
You can tell I've lost enthusiasm for describing this thing, but all I can say is definitely go along if time & planning allow. Tickets available from here.