Westminster by touch – Ellen Bassani

“This isn’t good enough for a bed chamber!” The “this” referred to was Westminster Hall.  The speaker was William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror.  Perhaps Rufus was used to something grander.  Yet an elaborate, hammer-vaulted roof the size of a football pitch and as high as three double-decker buses sat one upon the other, would be deemed grand enough.

A collection of blind people stood at the spot where the Queen Mother had lain in state, while a tour guide told of the remarkable history of this historic hall.  We were on a touch tour of the houses of parliament starting in the oldest part, and finishing in the House of Lords.

At the north end of the hall lay four levels of steps.  On the second landing, a plaque tells visitors where the King’s bench stood.  Famous trials were heard before this bench.  Charles the first, Guy Fawkes and, bizarrely, the dead body of Oliver Cromwell had judgement laid upon them.  On this same landing, smaller plaques told of famous speakers who stood and addressed our legislators – Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, to name but two of them.

At the top of the fourth flight glows a sculpture which celebrates the granting of the vote for women.  Lights come on and off in changing colours, somehow powered by the flowing of the Thames.  The piece of work represents the timeless, ever-changing world.

Under the sculpture and out through an arch, we found ourselves in St. Stephen’s hall   where statues of famous generals stand high on plinths.  There was a lot of gilt and the floor was smooth marble.  My support worker Emma, tried to describe things but the pace was fast and the most important feature needed to be explored.  On one of these general’s copper boot protrudes a spur.  It was around this spur that a suffragette chained herself and spent the night in February 1911.  This was the night when the census was taken and so she would be registered as domiciled in Westminster.  Out of this state of affairs arose the slogan “Allowed to live but not to vote.”

The spur was about five and a half feet off the ground which must have proved very uncomfortable for the woman who’d stood all night.  I wondered about which part of her body had borne up the heavy chain?

Then we filed into the lobby, where MP’s meet their constituents bearing petitions.  Here’s where most TV interviews with politicians are held.

Four imposing sculptures dominate this space; Churchill walking through rubble, Lloyd George standing on two plinths because his wife felt he was overshadowed by the imposing Churchill.  Clement Atlee stood unnoticed.  He’s the man who raised the quality of life for millions of poor people with the Health Service.  Maggie Thatcher’s statue was curious.  She didn’t have her handbag, only a sheaf of papers.  It was the high heels!  They were about four inches high and pointy.

Here’s where the famous door, on which black rod hammers, is to be found.  Over the centuries, the cracking of his staff has left an indent.  The surround of this door was powerful in its symbolism.  It was an arch made of chunks of uneven rock.  It along with Churchill’s sculpture represents the triumph over catastrophe which was the second world war.  The Houses of Parliament took a direct hit from a German bomb, and yet the people continued to be governed.

Each of the 650 MPs has a pigeon hole into which messages are slotted.  This cabinet is found in the member’s lobby and is nothing special.  However, if there is a message within, a light flashes.  It’s here that the keeper of the door sits.  He wears white tie and tails and around his neck is the seal of office.  Solid gold, this medallion is worth a fortune and is symbolic of his authority.

When the speaker calls “division” the MPs have eight minutes to assemble within the voting lobbies.  The keeper’s job is to shut the door in exactly eight minutes.  If this means slamming the door in a rushing member’s face, then so be it.

To vote, members file either through the “yes” or “no” lobby.  A battery of clerks take each member’s name and the numbers through both lobbies are recorded faithfully.

The House of Commons itself is an intimate space.  Surprising as the volume of sound coming from the chamber at prime Minister’s question time seems to fill a cavernous space.  From the Speaker’s chair, the government sit on the right side and the opposition sit to the left.  The benches are comfortably padded.  Luckily for the arses of the honourable members, because those debates can go on interminably.

The Speaker’s chair is up three steps and again is well padded.  My voice rang out as I sat calling for order.  Amazingly the room fell silent; the power!

When the house was rebuilt, the Commonwealth offered gifts.  The Speaker’s chair came from Australia.  The table on which the dispatch boxes sat arrived from Canada.  The dispatch boxes themselves were a gift from the north and south islands of New Zealand.

These dispatch boxes were a surprise.  They were about two feet square and ornately carved with the symbols of the United Kingdom.  It isn’t wood but metal at which the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition stand at question time.  They were only ten feet apart across the Canadian table.  This amazed me.  Once again, the broadcasts sounded like they shouted at each other from a wide distance.  At the two edges of the dispatch boxes, the engraving nearest to the person of the PM or leader of the opposition, was worn to a smooth, mat finish.  Many hand rubs, I suspect.

Into the House of Lords and the viewer is overwhelmed by the enormity and magnificence of the throne.  We blindies couldn’t be dazzled but were shown a model about a foot high.  The tiny little throne was inches.  The rest was gold uprights and crossbars.  The Lord High Chamberlain sits on a large, stuffed cushion, known as the woolsack.  Not the most comfortable seat in the house, I warrant.

In the past those officials required to approach the monarch, must under no circumstances, turn their back on his or her majesty.  Queen Elizabeth, being the modern, good sort, has dispensed with that protocol.  Health and safety has been appeased.

A row of clerks face the assembled nobles without wigs these days.  The wig was there to feel however.

To the right of the monarch sits the conservatives along with the bishops.  The bishops alone have arms on their bench.  It is rumoured that these holy gentlemen, take too much refreshment at supper and are inclined to slip gracefully to the floor, if found without a restraint.   To the left the opposition Lords.  In front sit the cross benchers drawn from all strata’s of achieving society.  Here the dispatched boxes are wood.  This house is gilded and full of stained glass.  It is still a privileged society.

After two hours, my feet were sore and my brain too full to take another fact in.  The guides were wonderful and alternative ways of seeing, were considered and often provided.  I would recommend this touch tour whole heartedly.  Next stop the tower of London.  I wonder what their touch tour is like?

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