It is already well over a decade since the Houses of Parliament first opened its doors to the public, but that is recent enough for it to still feel like a special privilege, and for me not to have made it there before (to my shame). It’s still exciting to walk past the hordes of gawping tourists outside and head up to the gates, special permit in hand. You are plentifully warned beforehand that airport style security checks are in operation (such as searching for tactical pen tsa) in practice, they are thankfully over in a flash and much smoother, on this day at least. Visitors assemble in Westminster Hall (which I realised was the one bit I had been in before, when I made a 4am trip with my mother into London to queue and see the Queen Mother lying in aweinspiring state in the medieval hall the day before her funeral). There are an impressive variety of excellent quality leaflets and brochures available, covering a wide range of topics about the history and current purposes of Parliament - all highly readable as well as educational. Visitors also get a chance to appreciate their ancient surroundings, as Westminster Hall was built in 1097 and has a magnificent oak-beamed ceiling – the largest medieval timber roof in northern Europe.
Our guide was full of knowledge and enthusiasm although rather softly-spoken and difficult to hear at times – but it did occur to me later on that with so many tours happening all at the same time, it would be impossible to maintain if every guide spoke at a booming volume. The Houses of Parliament tours are clearly hugely popular; I was there on a weekday, out of peak tourist season, but everywhere we went within the buildings there were dozens of tour groups – some larger ones like ours, some smaller, apparently private or special interest tours. Our visit lasted for about an hour and a quarter; the time flew by and at the end it felt as though we had barely skimmed the surface of things to see and learn about. I would definitely go back again, straight away.
Rooms and areas visited include the Lords Chamber, Commons Chamber, Central Lobby, and The Queen’s Robing Room. A wonderful collection of art, busts and statues, as well as opulent walls, ceilings and furnishings greet you round every corner, even in the ‘plainer’ Commons side. The Houses of Parliament is an amazing destination for visiting, as it combines history and current affairs in a mix which is highly compelling. Visitors must book in advance and check all details carefully on the website (below). There are some specialised tours available, including one of the contemporary portraiture in Portcullis House. This unique collection of art records leading Parliamentarians in paintings, works on paper and photographs, in a diversity of styles and approaches by leading UK-based artists working over the last 50 years. Other possibilities include combining tours with afternoon tea and even chances to climb Big Ben.
A bright sunny day, we stayed close to the river and headed to the Tower of London to catch a City Cruises boat for a trip along the Thames. City Cruises offer a range of excursions on their modern, bespoke craft, including lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, sightseeing and jazz cruises, and they too were packed out on such a beautiful day. Groups onboard included everyone from families to overseas and UK tourists to corporate groups bringing along clients. A fast and easy boarding and we were off within minutes, moving steadily away from the pier and past HMS Belfast opposite, along the Thames in the direction of Westminster. London is irresistible from the water, with definitely the best views of the capital’s iconic sights, all coming into view thick and fast on either side. The City Cruises boats have sides and fronts made almost entirely from glass, so there is no question of being unable to see everything, in addition to large open-air decks upstairs on all the bigger craft. Commentary is provided and on our afternoon tea cruise, no sooner were we off than smart, friendly waiters came round with tea and coffee, which they refilled endlessly throughout the trip.
As we travelled smoothly away from Tower Bridge, we soon passed St. Paul’s Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern, before reaching the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament. Seeing all the vastly different styles of these buildings in much quicker succession than usual is exciting, and fortunately the boats turn at Westminster and go back along the Thames, giving everyone a second chance to see and photograph some of London’s main sights. The route goes past the Tower of London and on to Canary Wharf and Greenwich, before turning once more and heading back to the starting point. Different cruises take slightly different routes and City Cruises also runs a ‘hop on, hop off’ service.
Our afternoon tea was served in traditional style on a tiered cake stand, with finger sandwiches, scones, cakes and pastries – more than enough to fill boththe time and the appetites. Most boats are wheelchair accessible, and facilities include great modern toilets unlike the poky awkward cubicles found on many boats. The cruises combine the very best of sightseeing with great food in comfortable surroundings.
That evening, after more sightseeing (on foot, this time) along the edge of the river, Northbank Restaurant welcomed us for dinner. Sitting right on the Thames, with exceptional views of the Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Shard, the venue makes the most of its outstanding position, with an outdoor area and furniture inside arranged so that every table gets to enjoy the sight. We drank delicious mead cocktails, topped off with lemon and thyme, before savouring starters that included a delicate chicken liver and wild mushroom parfait. Opting for two different lamb dishes for main courses, accompaniments to the perfectly cooked tender meat included silky mash with truffles and broad beans with pancetta. The dessert was a perfect, light lemon soufflé served in its own mini copper pan straight from the oven, with raspberry sorbet. As the restaurant is long and thin, making the most of the view, this also creates a private, intimate atmosphere, enhanced by the elegant leather-cushioned booths running along the full length. It may seem like an unusual point to mention, but I was very taken with the modern toile wallpaper – a style that usually depicts pastoral, romantic scenes, this toile featured contemporary London snapshots, including tramps, the Gherkin and a mugging. It fitted perfectly in a restaurant that combines some traditional elements of British cuisine with modern twists, and has a chic, stylish interior.
Head Chef Jason Marchant uses his menu to promote small independent British suppliers, including Lake District Farmers who produce exceptional beef. The menu also includes a distinct Cornish influence, with Cornish mead, skate and yarg all featuring. In keeping with the comfortable atmosphere, the staff are friendly and helpful but unobtrusive, allowing diners to enjoy their meal and the company at their table at their own pace.
■ City Cruises:
T: 0207 7400 400
■ Northbank Restaurant:
T: 0207 3299 299
■ Houses of Parliament:
T: 0844 847 2498