From the Westminster underground station at the north end of Westminster Bridge it is only a few steps to the Houses of Parliament. This cast-iron bridge is 130 years old; its predecessor, built in the mid-18th century, was only the second bridge crossing the Thames for London’s 675,000 inhabitants. With the bridge behind you, you will see on your left what is perhaps London’s most famous landmark: Big Ben. This name not only refers to the clock tower itself, but also to the 16-ton bell whose voice is known all over the world thanks to the BBC. It is disputed however whether the bell was named for Sir Benjamin Hall, under whose supervision the bell was hung in 1858, or after the boxer Benjamin Caunt.
Stretching along the Thames behind Big Ben are the neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings, built in the middle of the 19th century in golden-brown York stone to the plans of Charles Barry and August Pugin. In the l 1 th century the original building, raised as a royal palace for Edward the Confessor, burned down. After the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 it also functioned as both Parliament and law court. Today it is home only to Parliament, which works on a two-chamber system (House of Lords and House of Commons). Sittings of both houses are open to the public; you can obtain tickets at St. Stephen’s Entrance.
Worth seeing inside is Westminster Hall, built in 1097 under William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. Despite some structural changes, you can still see the original hammer-beam ceiling of oak, weighing 660 tons, which was completed in 1402. This hall once housed the supreme courts of England, and saw the trials of Charles I and Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. He failed, however, and the Queen is still able to open the new session of Parliament every year.
On Parliament Square, laid out by Barry, there are a number of monuments to eminent former M.P.s such as Benjamin Disraeli or Sir Robert Peel. Not far off is the little parish church of St. Margaret’s, which is where many of the Lower House marry.
Alongside St. Margaret’s and dwarfing it is the shining coronation church, Westminster Abbey, now cleaned of years of soot and grime. The abbey is dedicated to St. Peter, and is not subject to a bishop, but rather directly to the royal house. Henry III wished to provide his predecessor, Edward the Confessor, who had built a monastery church here in the l 7th century, with a worthy monument. Henry’s builder demolished parts of the Norman church and then rebuilt the nave, aisles, chapterhouse and the shrine along the lines of the Gothic cathedrals of Reims and Amiens. 300 years later, the vaulting of the nave roof was finished and the building of King Henry VIPs Chapel started. The towers of the west facade were completed in 1740. This 500 years of building history resulted in an outstanding church which has the highest nave in England (111 feet/34 m).
The height and width of the entrance is just as impressive as the sheer quantity of tombs (400), memorial tablets (3,000), and statues. Immediately after the portal there is a marble tablet to the memory of Sir Winston Churchill; on the left, the Socialists’ Corner dedicated to British leftwingers; in the nave itself, a memorial to the architect Barry; in the north nave, a tablet commemorating Charles Darwin and famous musicians and composers; in the north transept, statues of eminent 19th century politicians such as Disraeli, Gladstone, Peel, Canning. The Poet’s Corner is in the south transept and honors, among others, Shakespeare, the Romantics Keats and Shelley, the Bronte sisters, and many, many more.
For centuries, the coronation ceremony has been held in the Sanctuary to the east of the crossing. The monarch sits on a wooden throne, the Coronation Chair, supported by four lions; at other times, this 13th-century throne is kept in St. Edward’s Chapel next to the shrine of the royal saint. Beneath the throne is the rectangular Stone of Scone, the coronation stone of all Scottish kings until 1296, when Edward conquered Scotland and brought the stone back to London. It’s said that as long as England possesses the stone, Scotland will never gain independence, and not so long ago Scottish Nationalists actually kidnaped it. The eastern end of the Abbey terminates in the wonderful Henry VIPs Chapel, with a marvellously intricate fan-vaulted ceiling. This chapel is not only the final resting place of Henry VII, but also of his wife, Elizabeth of York; Queen Elizabeth I; her sister, Mary Tudor; and her rival Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.
If you want a breath of fresh air, leave the Abbey by way of the cloister (the door is in the south transept), where you can see an oval memorial tablet with a world map dedicated to the circumnavigators Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook and the lone sailor of this century, Sir Francis Chichester.
Behind the Abbey, on your way to the Tate Gallery, you will pass Westminster School in Great College Street, founded in 1560 by Elizabeth I. It is still one of the great “public” schools of England (alongside Eton and Winchester); and its alumni have included notables from Ben Jonson, Dryden, and Wren to the actor Peter Ustinov.
Millbank runs parallel to the Thames and brings you to the neo-classical entrance of the Tate Gallery (underground station: Pimlico). The gallery stands on the site of what was once the largest prison of London and was opened in 1897 by the sugar millionaire Sir Henry Tate. It exhibits works by British artists from the 16th to 19th centuries, and international modern art after 1880. In 7 987 the post-modern extension, the Clore Gallery (architect: James Stirling) was opened. Paintings by Turner are displayed here on two floors.
A 15-minute walk northwards brings you to Westminster Cathedral, England’s most important Catholic church (underground station: Victoria). This Romanesque-Byzantine basilica of red brick striped with white Portland stone is externally very different indeed from the Anglican Westminster Abbey. The tower, almost 330 feet high (100 m), has an elevator and provides a wonderful view of the government district.