Houses of Parliament tours open up a usually private world to visitors

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.

This month’s ‘Team on Tour’ comes
from Caroline Gregory, the Editor of Group Travel World magazine

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.

The Houses of Parliament tours are enthralling and highly informative

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.

City Cruises trips take in all the landmarks along the Thames.

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.

Northbank’s light lemon souffle.

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.

A range of excursions are on offer from City Cruises.

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.

The plush interior of the Northbank Restaurant

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
W: www.citycruises.com

■ Northbank Restaurant:
T: 0207 3299 299
E: info@northbankrestaurant.com
W: www.northbankrestaurant.com

■ Houses of Parliament:
T: 0844 847  2498
E: laceyir@parliament.uk
W: www.parliament.uk/visiting