The Parliament of the United Kingdom is renowned world-wide as being the ‘mother of all parliaments’ This post is a self-guided walk through the heart of political Westminster.
The walk starts in Smith Square, Westminster, home to party HQ’s, lobbyists and political associations and ends in Trafalgar Square. It will take you around three hours, including a stop for lunch at the pub of choice of Westminster’s Members of Parliament.
32 Smith Square is the office of the European Commission and European Parliament in the UK. The building was formerly the headquarters of the Conservative Party before it moved to nearby 4 Matthew Parker Street. Smith Square is dominated in its centre by the former church of St John the Evangelist, now a concert venue and restaurant
Leave Smith Square and head along Lord North Street. This complete Georgian terrace (dating from 1722) has been central to political life for over a century. At the corner of Great Peter Street is No. 2 Lord North Street. This is the headquarters of The Institute of Economic Affairs, an influential think-tank, prominent during the Thatcher years. No. 5 is where Harold Wilson chose to live during his final term in office, in preference to Downing Street . No. 8 is the former home of the disgraced former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, jailed for perjury in 1999 and, today, an ordained Church of England deacon
The Houses of Parliament, officially the Palace of Westminster. Completed in 1860 by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, it replaced the medieval Old Palace of Westminster. The Old Palace was given to the nation for government by King Henry VIII, but lost to a devastating fire in 1834. Victoria Tower (centre) was the largest square tower in the world when built. (To the left, the Elizabeth Tower, housing ‘Big Ben’, is obscured by scaffolding)
Head across Abingdon Street into Victoria Tower Gardens. The Gothic looking memorial at the south end commemorates the Emancipation of Slaves in 1834, achieved through the efforts of Wilberforce, Clarkson, Macaulay and others.
The Jewel Tower (on the right) is a remaining section of the Old Palace of Westminster. It was built by King Edward III in the 1360s as a store for valuables. In the background is Westminster Abbey. The co-location of the Abbey and the Palace (both built in the 1040s) was deliberate by King Edward the Confessor who wished to be near the Benedictine monks, that originally settled in the marshy backwater of Westminster in the 940s.
The east ‘extension’ of Westminster Abbey was completed in 1516 by King Henry VII. Called the Henry VII Chapel (or Lady Chapel) it is the resting place of the King and his wife, Elizabeth of York. The area outside (by the statue of King George V) is frequently used for political demonstrations owing to its position facing both chambers of the Houses of Parliament
Westminster Hall (centre) was originally built in 1097 by King William II. King Richard II rebuilt it in 1397 with the addition of a striking oak hammer-beam roof that still survive today. It was in Westminster Hall that the English Parliament first sat in 1265. It was composed of the King’s Council (barons and bishops; the Lords) and representatives from the towns and shires; the Commons. The Commons separated from the Lords in 1352 and remained in the Chapter House in Westminster Abbey, until both Houses co-located again in the Houses of Parliament in 1547. The Commons settled in St Stephen’s Chapel (which is why, in the House of Commons, our political parties face each other).
New Palace Yard, showing the entrance to Westminster Hall and the House of Commons (left)
Statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Parliament Square was created in the 1860s by Charles Barry. It replaced the low-grade medieval housing previously on the site. Today, the square is home to statuses of famous British and foreign politicians. (In the background are the the western towers of the Abbey, completed in 1745 Nicholas Hawksmoor, pupil of Sir Christopher Wren)
Statues in Parliament Square (hover over the picture for the name).
David Lloyd George
Millicent Garrett Fawcett
From Parliament Square head along Great George Street to its corner with Horse Guards Road. This is HM Treasury building. Beneath are the war rooms of HM Government; used during the early years of the Second World War. (There are many fascinating sights in The Churchill War Rooms; including the Cabinet room, Map room, transatlantic telephone room and Churchill’s private quarters)
Proceed along King Charles Street towards Whitehall. On the left is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (completed in the 1860s by George Gilbert-Scott) and on the right is HM Treasury (completed in 1917 by John Brydon)
Cross Whitehall opposite King Charles Street and stop for lunch at The Red Lion pub. (One of many pubs in London going by the name; owing to the Scottish King James VI who also became King James I of England in 1603). The pub is a favourite watering hole of MPs and civil servants in Whitehall
The Cenotaph on Whitehall commemorates the fallen from all conflicts since the First World War. Every year there is a ceremonial walk-past of thousands of servicemen and servicewomen. It is saluted by all political parties and the Royal Family, who stand on the balcony (in the centre of the picture). (The Cenotaph, meaning empty tomb, was completed in 1920 by Edwin Lutyens)
Heading north along Whitehall is Downing Street. Given to King George II in 1732 by the Downing family, it was offered as a residence to Sir Robert Walpole, who accepted it on the basis it would be offered as a ‘residence in office’ to all subsequent ‘Prime Ministers’. Sir Robert was Britain’s first Prime Minster, although his official title was First Lord of the Treasury – as the plaque reads on the door of No. 10 Downing Street today. (The first statutory reference to the role of ‘Prime Minister’ was not until 1917)
Heading north on Whitehall is the Monument to the Women of World War II erected in 2005. Behind, is the Cabinet Office; the government department that serves the Government and sponsors the implementation of new policies and ideas in other government departments
The Scotland Office and a statue of Earl Haig (a senior officer of the British Army in the First World War). The Scottish Office was established in 1885. Following the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999 it retains only a small residue of responsibilities
The Banqueting House on Whitehall (architect Inigo Jones) is the only remaining part of Whitehall Palace; that burned down entirely in 1698. It was from the first floor window (left) that King Charles I stepped onto the scaffold and was executed for treason against the people of England in 1649. From 1649 to 1660 England was a Republic, until the Restoration of the Monarchy under King Charles II in 1660. From 1660, enforced by the Bill of Rights in 1689, our British style of Constitutional Monarchy started to take its current form
Horse Guards, the official entrance to the Royal Court of St James (completed in 1760 by architects William Kent and John Vardy). Guard changes take place daily at 11 am Mon-Sat, 10 am Sun
The Old War Office (competed in 1906 by architect William Young). Operations in World War II were directed from this building by the War Cabinet and Sir Winston Churchill – as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence
Looking north towards is Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery and the unmistakable Nelson Column (column by W Railton, statue by EH Bailey); looking down Whitehall to the Old Admiralty Building and the south coast of England. On the left is an equestrian statue of George Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army (1856-1895).
The Old Admiralty Building (completed in the 1720s by architect Thomas Ripley) was the headquarters of the British Navy until 1964, when the Ministry of Defence was formed. In 1815, victorious news of the Battle of Trafalgar was reported to the first secretary to the Admiralty based here. It was sixteen days after the event; the panting officer said: ‘Sir, we have gained a great victory but lost Lord Nelson’. Nelson’s body lay here prior to a state funeral and burial in St Paul’s Cathedral
Opposite the Old Admiralty, along Scotland Yard, stands the original stable block the Metropolitan Police; the nearby headquarters were demolished in 1890. (Prior to the union of England and Scotland in 1707, Scotland Yard was the diplomatic precinct for the visiting kings of Scotland)
The statue of King Charles I in Trafalgar Square was created by Hubert Le Sueur in 1633. It is the oldest equestrian statue in London and today, it marks the centre of London. Following the execution of the King in 1649 the statue was sold to a metalsmith, for melting down. However, the metalsmith was a royalist supporter and in 1675 it ‘reappeared’ and was installed in its current location under the orders of King Charles II.
Trafalgar Square was completed in 1840. On the north side is a statue of King George IV; the King intensely disliked his wife (Queen Caroline of Brunswick) and famously excluded her from his coronation in 1821
The Canadian High Commission on the west side of Trafalgar Square, occupying the most prestigious location of any High Commission or Embassy in London. (Canada sided with Great Britain during the American Wars of Independence)
Trafalgar square looking south down Whitehall. Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1815. In order to preserve his body on the long passage from Spain to Southampton his body was submerged in a barrel of rum. Upon opening the barrel, the rum had gone. Nelson’s men had attached a tap and emptied the barrel; taking ‘stiff drinks, throughout the voyage home (it’s the derivation of the term!)