Power and glory in Westminster

IAN COLLINS If you can brave the roadworks, building works, silent clock and intense security, the Palace of Westminster is a great spot for a late summer visit. Ian Collins now guides us over the grandeur of parliament and across the road to an overlooked little gem.

IAN COLLINS

London is thronged with visitors in September and I have to say that, when looking at our some of our national landmarks, at first glance they may get rather a raw deal.

Trafalgar Square is hugely improved since the dispersal of pigeons and the diversion of traffic so that the central piazza is now one vast terrace for the National Gallery.

The view from Nelson's Column down Whitehall and towards Parliament Square invites the visitor to walk to the Palace of Westminster, rather than diving to the right and strolling along The Mall, and through St James's Park, to Buckingham Palace.

But when we get to the Mother of Parliament what do we find? The Mother of All Roadworks.

The road around the palace is being dug up for yet more security works, with huge and hideous barriers now in place to prevent suicide bombers in vans and lorries crashing into the political palace. Such is the state of Britain in the summer of 2007.

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There's also the usual din and palaver of building work within the palace which invades every summer recess, and often the smaller ones at other times of the year.

Public money is poured into this place, and current costs of health and safety changes are simply colossal.

What's more Big Ben is ominously silent, though the great clockface on that world-famous tower continues to tell the time with no bongs every 15 minutes.

The 13.5-ton great bell that first rang in May 1859 is to be rested for more than a month while remedial work is carried out to worn-out bearings, in a final mechanical overhaul before a big party for that 150th birthday.

But if things in and around the Palace of Westminster appear bad on the face of it, then maybe we just need to look a little more closely.

Valiant attempts are being made to maintain public access to what is, after all, the centre of our representative democracy… even though our representatives have beaten a retreat to hundreds of beaches.

You can wander freely (after an inevitable queue and an intense security search) into Westminster Hall, that immense Norman structure recently celebrating its 900th birthday having weathered the centuries - and uses as debating chamber, courtroom, tennis court, banqueting hall, market, store and stable - unscathed.

That beautiful 14th century hammerbeam roof survived the Blitz, and it now looks down on a noble little exhibition to mark the bicentenary of the vote in this very building to abolish the slave trade across the British Empire.

As astonishing as that escape in the second world war, when bombs fell repeatedly on Winston Churchill's power base, with the chamber wrecked by one direct hit, was the fact that Westminster Hall was rescued when a devastating fire in 1834 gutted the rest of the medieval building save for the crypt.

Contemporary pictures of ant-like firefighters carrying tiny buckets of water up matchstick ladders to throw at a Grand Canyon of flames suggest that even a slight change in wind direction would have scotched (and scorched) that heroic defensive effort.

All this you can savour, with a bit of information and a lot of imagination, for free.

But better still are the 75-minute tours of parliament by blue badge guides, taking you through the main parts of the building and showing you the striking divisions between the lower and upper house.

For all the piecemeal moves at reform, and removal of ancient privilege, the debating chamber of the House of Lords remains unrivalled in gilded, painted and crimson-seated splendour (though the royal gallery runs it close).

The Palace of Westminster occupies the site of the old Royal Palace, which was the chief residence of the monarch from the time of Edward the Confessor to Henry VIII.

The building was much damaged by fire in 1512, and Henry VIII then grabbed York Place, which he renamed Whitehall from Cardinal Wolsey in 1529. (That, too, would largely burn down at the end of the 17th century - though the Inigo Jones-designed Banqueting House, with its ceiling by Rubens and the window through which Charles I stepped on to the scaffold in 1649 - survives and is open to the public.)

Although the old palace then ceased to be a royal residence it has remained a royal palace… which may account for the lofty behaviour of some of those who have (happily briefly) exercised power here.

But there is another remnant of the medieval complex that I want to point out this week. Between the present gothic revival palace and Westminster Abbey you'll find a turret like a small Scottish baronial castle - a little gem aptly known as the Jewel Tower.

Also known as the King's Privy Wardrobe, the tower of Kentish ragstone was added to the palace about 1365 to house Edward III's treasures.

Picture all the jewels, clothes, furs, and gold vessels, as well as a mint of money stored here until the reign of Henry VII. It was thus a cross between the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Crown Estate, all lumped in one fine closet.

With the remains of a moat and medieval quay still visible outside (for this was formerly a marshy island lapped by the Thames), the three-storey structure oozes history. It was probably designed by the great Henry Yevele, the medieval equivalent of Christopher Wren,

Inside there's an original ribbed vault and two displays - one relating the saga of Parliament Past and Present and the other the history of this brilliant little building.

Stripped of its treasures the Jewel Tower was a dusty filing cabinet for parliamentary records until 1864, and then a suite for the old weights and measures office until 1938.

Far better to my mind that it's now a museum inviting visitors to conjure up a smidgeon of majestic history. t

t Summer opening of Parliament runs until September 29. Open Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday 9.15am to 4.30pm, Wednesday and Thursday 1.15pm to 4.30pm. Guided tours - £12 for adults, £5 to £8 for concessions and £30 for families - can be booked on 0870 906 3773 (or via www.keithprowse.com/uk or the ticket line on www.parliament.uk).

t Admission to the Jewel Tower (020 7222 2219) is free to members of English Heritage, otherwise it is £2.90 for adults and £1.50 to £2.20 for concessions. Open 10am to 5pm daily until the end of October, then 10am to 4pm daily until April.

t Tube: Westminster.

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