Thursday, March 01, 2007

Houses of Parliament

I have been silent for a while as I have been preparing for three events in London that took place this week. The first on Tuesday morning was a meeting in the House of Lords on Intelligent Design. After this was a meeting with a start up pharmaceutical company that has a new drug that might be useful in CLL. Finally there was symposium in honor of the retiring director of the National Blood Authority. In succeeding blogs I shall have something to say about all of these.

First, my impression of the House of Lords.

The Houses of Parliament have iconic status not just in Britain, but around the world. For some they are the birthplace of modern democracy; for others the emblem on a bottle of sauce. The famous clocktower that houses Big Ben is recognized almost everywhere.

I had never visited the Palace of Westminster before, so this was a first for me. The first Palace on this site was built by Edward the Confessor before the Norman invasion and it has been the place where the British parliament has always met. The Commons used to meet in St Stephen's Chapel which is within the complex.

In 1834 most of the building was destroyed by fire, so what people recognize is mainly Victorian. All that remained untouched by fire was the crypt of the chapel, the Jewel Tower and Westminster Hall.

The magnificent Gothic Revival building that we see today was designed by Charles Barry and built between 1840 and 1888. The interior is designed by Barry's pupil, Augustus Pugin.

Westminster Hall is impressively large. The roof dates from the Thirteenth Century and its hammerbeam roof has the largest span in the world. Here you can tread on the very spots where Guy Fawkes, Sir Thomas More and Charles 1st were tried.

The whole building is a maze of oak paneled corridors that lead to committee rooms with the latest electronic equipment and magnificently arranged State rooms gilded and paneled and adorned with impressive paintings and frescos. Statues of previous prime ministers have just be joined by a tremendous bronze of Margaret Thatcher - the first since Churchill. Other post-war prime ministers just have busts (apart from Attlee who both preceded and succeeded Churchill).

The Chambers (Red for the Lords, green for the Commons) are smaller than you would think, but redolent with tradition.

Any British citizen can ask his MP for a guided tour and if you have never done this you should. Overseas visitors can tour the Palace during the summer recess in August and September, though they may still attend debates and committee meetings at other times.

No comments: