A Victorian wonder – the Palace of Westminster

A Victorian wonder – the Palace of Westminster

Edward had been suffering from headaches of late. Court physicians dismissed the king as ill. But he knew the cause of his ailment. The Tower, that fortress meant to defend the monarchs, was no longer a bastion of peace.

The Tower. London

London had fallen into disarray, and the fortress found itself virtually in the middle of a city ruled by the poverty and squalor of the common people. The shouts of the crowds and the noise of the street markets could not drown out even the Tower’s crows. All this gave King Edward the Confessor migraine attacks. During one of which he decides to build a new residence, in a quieter and more secluded place.

Edward the Confessor.

Thus came the Palace of Westminster, one of the most famous buildings and a unique engineering project that still amazes with its design.

The palace was built on the banks of the Thames. The place was not chosen by chance, it was determined for security reasons – so that in case of popular unrest the palace could not be surrounded from all sides.

It is, indeed, the pinnacle of engineering – the corridors, which are about 5 kilometers long, imperceptibly turn into a labyrinth and connect a thousand rooms and halls. This is the seat of the British Parliament.

The palace has three towers. Victoria Tower to the south. At the time of its construction is the tallest tower in the world. In the center is the spire. It has more than 200 panes of glass. This spire acts as a large hood to keep the building smoke-free, as all the rooms of the palace were heated with wood at the time.

To the north rises the famous Big Ben, the palace’s main enigma. How did people of the Victorian era manage to build a 100-metre tower and construct a clock that, even 160 years later, shows the most accurate time? Perhaps the secret is that the clock was created by people who have nothing to do with watchmaking. It is not without reason that they say the Ark was built by amateurs and the Titanic by professionals.

The royal astronomer Sir George Biddel Airy gave the detailed technical specifications that the clock had to have, while the mechanism was designed by the lawyer and politician Sir Edmund Beckett Denison.

There is no elevator in the clock tower and the clockmakers who watch the clock have to climb exactly 334 steps every day. Inside is a huge bell, weighing 13 tons, which is called Big Ben. It is he who gave its name to the tower itself. Around there are smaller bells. They strike every 15 minutes. Previously, their sound was heard within a radius of eight kilometers, now – about a kilometer. The overpowering noise of the city is to blame.

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The clock faces have 312 opalescent glasses, the copper minute hands are the size of a two-storey bus, and the numerals are 60 centimeters high. During a session of Parliament, the dials of Big Ben are illuminated.

The clock mechanism, which weighs 7 tons, is wound by hand and lasts about an hour and a half.

The clock was commissioned by Parliament in 1854. The task was difficult – the clock had to be not only the biggest, but also the most accurate, with an error of no more than 2 minutes per week. It was impossible to achieve this with the ready-made clock – the wind whose gusts would move the hands backwards. But engineers invented a system of weights to turn the hands. Now a computer monitors the clock.

The Big Ben clock did not stop even during WWII, when a bomb hit the House of Commons. The tower was not destroyed in the explosion, only the dial was partially damaged, but in spite of this, the clock continued to show the time properly.

If you look at the clock tower from the side, you can see that it is inclined to the north-west. According to experts it happens because of the drying of the clay under the base of the tower.

Big Ben has stopped a couple of times. In 1976, when several parts of the mechanism broke from time and in 2017, for restoration. The sound of the clock will be heard again in 2021, on New Year’s Eve.

In June 2012, the House of Commons announced that the clock tower was being renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honor of Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.

Just like that, thanks to a little headache, a grand cultural monument and symbol of an entire country was born.

Palace of Westminster

Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster in London is not just a building of the British Parliament, but one of the key and most recognizable landmarks of the entire United Kingdom. Here begins the majority of sightseeing tours of the “old England”, here, along with Tower Bridge, try to get filmmakers, taking pictures of the misty capital. For visitors, seeing the palace from the inside, or at least from the booth of the London Eye, has become a real ritual, without which no tour can be imagined.

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The clock tower of the Palace of Westminster – Big Ben – is the main symbol of London, more often found on souvenirs. It is associated with legends, iconic historical events and numerous scandals. To save the mechanism from the endless flow of people, the British authorities took an unpopular decision. Now to see the miracle of engineering of the XIX century can only subjects of Her Majesty, the entrance is strictly by passport.

Palace of Westminster

Visit the Palace of Westminster

Anyone who wants to visit the Palace of Westminster can do so in two ways. The first is to stand in a live line in front of the ticket office, or buy tickets online for a particular day. In this case, the cost of the visit in 2022 will be 21 GBP per adult, 18 GBP for students or pensioners over 60 and 9 GBP for children from 5 to 15 years. If you book online, regardless of the ticket category, there is a 10% discount per person.

The second way is to book an official tour, and here you will have to adhere to a strict schedule of visits. Groups of tourists are started every quarter of an hour, exactly 70 minutes, which is how long the sightseeing tour through the inner halls lasts. There is a 7,50 GBP surcharge to the ticket price.

Guided tours of the Palace of Westminster in Russian are available every day at 13:40 and 16:15. The tour groups are formed two hours before the tour begins.

The tour includes a tour of only those rooms, limited access to which is authorized personally by Her Majesty, this includes:

  • Gallery;
  • The Royal Dressing Room;
  • The Prince’s Chambers;
  • Chambers of Lords and Commons;
  • The Central and Members’ Lobbies;
  • Glossary;
  • Westminster Hall;
  • St. Stephen’s Hall.

Any filming inside, except in the two halls, including on cell phones and amateur cameras, is strictly prohibited, as reminded by numerous warning signs. When guests visit on their own, audio guides are provided, Russian is optionally included.

Central passage to St Stephen's Hall


The first mention of the royal residence on Thorney Island, the ancient name of the area of London, is found in the early Middle Ages. The construction of Westminster Abbey was at an early stage, and the rulers of Wessex and the descendants of William the Conqueror had somewhere to live and pass decrees. The palace stood for nearly three centuries; at least the surviving remains of the first foundation are dated not later than XIV century, which is confirmed by chronicles.

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The palace took over the function of parliament only by the 16th century, when England was ruled by Henry VIII, one of the founders of the Tudor dynasty. In those years, the wing with the monarch’s bedrooms burned to the ground in a big city fire, and the king decided to move to White Hall, giving the halls of Westminster to political debates. The Houses of Commons and Lords had by then finally formed, but had no permanent “residence”, meeting now and then in the chapels of the Abbey or in the royal halls.

Serious reconstruction began after another fire in 1834, when several load-bearing walls collapsed and it was life-threatening to stay even near the palace. The work dragged on for many 24 years, two of which were spent adopting the project. Simultaneously the Elizabeth Tower, later named Big Ben after the 13-ton bell hidden in the clock mechanism, was under construction. Thus the appearance of Parliament was changed forever, but retained the general architectural style of Neo-Gothic.

View of Big Ben from the Courtyard of Westminster

During World War II, the Palace of Westminster could disappear from the map of London forever. On Hitler’s personal orders, several dozen incendiary bombs were dropped on the building every day from mid 1940 to 1941. The greatest devastation came on the House of Commons, which burned down completely with all its wooden furnishings. The restoration went relatively quickly – five years after the surrender of Germany, British politicians went back to work.

The last decades of the twentieth century saw the expansion of the legal territory of Parliament. Thus, in the seventies, the state bought two Victorian mansions on the opposite bank of the Thames, later to be called Norman Shaw. Much more interesting fate at the Portcullis office center – it was built from scratch in the aesthetics of the industrial revolution and handed over for use by the year 2000. Anyone can visit the futuristic atrium on the first floor; there are no guided tours of the rest of the premises.

Today, the Palace of Westminster is regularly restored – the latest work started in 2017, from time to time the facade is “decorated” by scaffolding with drapery. If access to any of the halls is restricted, tourists are warned in advance. When it is not possible to enter the territory, guests are offered dozens of alternative outdoor routes, there is no shortage of attractions.

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Palace of Westminster

Interesting facts

It is possible to visit the Palace of Westminster for free, but only if there is an open debate on that day. The Lords sit from Monday to Thursday, from 2:30 p.m. until late at night, and there have been occasions when the oratorical “duels” have lasted well past midnight. The British themselves perceive the democratic process as some element of the show, so the lines must be kept for 2-3 hours. Only citizens of the United Kingdom are admitted to the meetings marked “Oral Questions”.

The British Parliament in numbers amazes even a modern person. There are 1,100 interior rooms, 100 staircases and 3.2 hectares of total floor space. Each passage from the gallery to the halls and chambers is through; if you open all the doors at once and go from west to east, or vice versa, you can return to the starting point. The length of the resulting “corridor” exceeds three kilometers, making the enfilade of the first two floors in total the longest in the world among operating palaces.

A number of sources call Big Ben a “falling tower,” based on pure mathematics. Its asymmetry with respect to the rest of the architectural ensemble can only be seen from a distance or bird’s eye view, but the facts speak for themselves. The deviation of the top of the spire from the foundation is almost 44 centimeters, which gives a total height of 0.3 degrees. According to one version, it is because of this and introduced a ban on climbing for foreigners, although other subjective reasons no less.

Palace of Westminster

Up to 1832 Westminster Hall was not only a front gate, but also a kind of marketplace. According to the royal decree in force, it was allowed here to sell books and cloth brought from India or China. The chambers succeeded to cancel the monarch’s permission because of the noise from the buyers, kicking out all the sellers. Conspirators believe that it was the offended shopkeepers who set the last fire, which caused two wings to be rebuilt.

The highest spire in the complex crowns Victoria Tower, through the 12-meter arch which the ruler of Great Britain enters all the ceremonial meetings and events. Inside the donjon is the English state archive of all civil acts, laws and decrees published since 1497 up to now. For example, such legendary documents as the first handwritten version of the Bill of Rights and the death warrant of Charles I Stuart, who was executed nearby, are preserved here.

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On the other side of Abindon Street, toward the Abbey, is the seemingly inconspicuous Jewel Tower, which conceals centuries of history. It was built by King Edward III, so much feared by London thieves that they dug a moat with a canal from the River Thames around it. Later, the Office of Weights and Measures was housed inside, where the reference feet, inches and measuring cups of volumes were kept. The structure is now devoted to a museum.

Jewel Tower these days

How to get to the Palace of Westminster in London

In terms of tourist routes, the most convenient way to get to the British Parliament is by subway – Westminster station is located directly under the Portcullis office center. There are three lines to it – green (District line), gray (Jubilee line) and circular yellow (Circle line). You can get on any of them – exits from the lobbies are located opposite Big Ben, you only need to cross the road at the nearest traffic lights, not forgetting about the traditional left-hand traffic.

For those who prefer ground transportation, it is better to take buses. The stop of the same name is located here, at the main gate of Portcullis, but only two routes go to it – No. 148 and No. 211. Given the capital traffic and constant traffic jams, the trip may be long, but it will be a great opportunity to see the city from the window.

About a cab in London you need to know the following – the famous black cab takes only those who have the money for it. The cost of the trip within one area is around 15-20 GBP, three times cheaper to order a regular car through the application Uber. It is not always stable because of the strikes by the unions, but the benefits are felt immediately.

About those who travel by rented vehicles, the city authorities have taken care with a specific British humor. Parking is technically available just across the road from the Palace (51.497817, -0.126391), but charges in 2022 start at GBP8 an hour and rise twice that in the evening. These measures are taken as part of the fight against traffic congestion, so it is more profitable to use public transport.

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