Political, religious and regal power has emanated from Westminster for almost a millennium. It was Edward the Confessor (1042–66) who first established Westminster as London’s royal and ecclesiastical power base, some three miles west of the City of London. The embryonic English parliament used to meet in the abbey and eventually took over the old royal palace of Westminster. In the nineteenth century, Westminster – and Whitehall in particular – became the “heart of the Empire”, its ministries ruling over a quarter of the world’s population. Even now, though the UK’s world status has diminished, the institutions that run the country inhabit roughly the same geographical area: Westminster for the politicians, Whitehall for the civil servants.
The monuments and buildings in and around Westminster also span the millennium, and include some of London’s most famous landmarks – Nelson’s Column, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, plus two of the city’s finest permanent art collections, the National Gallery and Tate Britain. This is a well-trodden tourist circuit since it’s also one of the easiest parts of London to walk round, with all the major sights within a mere half-mile of each other, linked by one of London’s most majestic streets, Whitehall.Read More
Houses of Parliament
Houses of ParliamentClearly visible at the south end of Whitehall is one of London’s best-known monuments, the Palace of Westminster, better known as the Houses of Parliament. The city’s finest Victorian Gothic Revival building and symbol of a nation once confident of its place at the centre of the world, it’s distinguished above all by the ornate, gilded clocktower popularly known as Big Ben, after the thirteen-ton main bell that strikes the hour (and is broadcast across the world by BBC radio).
The original medieval palace burned down in 1834, and everything you see now – save for Westminster Hall – is the work of Charles Barry, who created an orgy of honey-coloured pinnacles, turrets and tracery that attempts to express national greatness through the use of Gothic and Elizabethan styles. You get a glimpse of the eleventh-century Westminster Hall en route to the public galleries, its huge oak hammer-beam roof making it one of the most magnificent secular medieval halls in Europe.
Westminster AbbeyThe Houses of Parliament dwarf their much older neighbour, Westminster Abbey, yet this single building embodies much of the history of England: it has been the venue for all coronations since the time of William the Conqueror, and the site of more or less every royal burial for some five hundred years between the reigns of Henry III and George II. Scores of the nation’s most famous citizens are honoured here, too (though many of the stones commemorate people buried elsewhere), and the interior is crammed with hundreds of monuments and statues.
Entry is via the north transept, cluttered with monuments to politicians and traditionally known as Statesmen’s Aisle, from which you can view the central sanctuary, site of the coronations, and the wonderful Cosmati floor mosaic, constructed in the thirteenth century by Italian craftsmen, and often covered by a carpet to protect it.
The abbey’s most dazzling architectural set piece, the Lady Chapel, was added by Henry VII in 1503 as his future resting place. With its intricately carved vaulting and fan-shaped gilded pendants, the chapel represents the final spectacular gasp of the English Perpendicular style. Look out for Edward I’s Coronation Chair, a decrepit oak throne dating from around 1300 and still used for coronations.
Nowadays, the abbey’s royal tombs are upstaged by Poets’ Corner, in the south transept, though the first occupant, Geoffrey Chaucer, was in fact buried here not because he was a poet, but because he lived nearby. By the eighteenth century this zone had become an artistic pantheon, and since then, the transept has been filled with tributes to all shades of talent.
Great Cloisters and Nave
Doors in the south choir aisle (plus a separate entrance from Dean’s Yard) lead to the Great Cloisters, rebuilt after a fire in 1298. On the east side lies the octagonal Chapter House, where the House of Commons met from 1257, boasting thirteenth-century apocalyptic wall paintings. Also worth a look is the Abbey Museum, filled with generations of lifelike (but bald) royal funereal effigies.
It’s only after exploring the cloisters that you get to see the nave itself: narrow, light and, at over a hundred feet in height, by far the tallest in the country. The most famous monument in this section is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, by the west door, which now serves as the main exit.
The Changing of the Guard
The Changing of the Guard
The Queen is colonel-in-chief of the seven Household Regiments: the Life Guards (who dress in red and white) and the Blues and Royals (who dress in blue and white) are the two Household Cavalry regiments; while the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards make up the Foot Guards.
The Changing of the Guard takes place at two London locations: the two Household Cavalry regiments take it in turns to stand guard at Horse Guards on Whitehall , while the Foot Guards take care of Buckingham Palace. A ceremony also takes place regularly at Windsor Castle.