Even if you’ve never been in London before, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey will look familiar to you. This iconic cluster of spires and towers spells “London” to people the world over. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and London’s number one tourist attraction.Ancient as it appears, however, the splendid Gothic Revival building in which the Houses of Parliament hold their sessions is surprisingly new; it replaced the Palace of Westminster destroyed by fire in 1834.
Big Ben, the 13-ton bell in the clock tower, first rang out its variation on a theme from Handel’s Messiah in 1859. Westminster Abbey, on the other hand, is authentically, awesomely, old. British Monarchs have been crowned here since 1066. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the soaring vaulted ceiling, the stained glass, the monuments and memorials, which range from effigies of Elizabeth I and her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots to statues of 10 contemporary martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr.
Find your way through the cloisters to the Abbey Museum. This modest room houses the oldest known panel painting in England. A 13th century retable, it was taken down from the High Altar in the
16th century and by the 18th it was being used as the lid of a chest. It was sent for restoration in 1998 and returned to the Abbey in 2005. And if you’ll settle for paste gems instead of the real thing you can save yourself a trip to the Tower of London to see the Crown jewels. Replicas of the Coronation Regalia, used for rehearsals of the ceremony, are displayed here. (The museum is “usually” open every day but only from 10.30 to 16.00 on Sundays.)
The Abbey’s College Garden is another hidden treasure. This leafy space is open throughout the year but is especially beautiful in the spring when its apple and cherry trees are in bloom. In the summer, lunchtime band concerts are sometimes held. (Garden is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; in winter from 10.00 to 16.00, in summer from 10.00 to 18.00.)
The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre across Broad Sanctuary from the Abbey was finished in 1986; it included a bug-proof room on the fourth floor for Prime Minister Thatcher’s top-level meetings.
Visit Big Ben, Parliament and Westminster Abbey
Only UK residents may climb the clock tower’s 335 stairs to see Big Ben (to be rechristened Elizabeth Tower.. Big Beth?), but all are welcome to visit the Houses of Parliament (for details, see www.parliament.uk.) To tour Westminster Abbey, simply pick up an audio guide, free with your ticket. If you prefer to wander on you own, your queries will be answered by one of the colourfully gowned Abbey staff members. (The Abbey is closed to tourists Saturday afternoon and Sunday; otherwise, last entrance at 15.30 or 18.00 on Wednesday.) Experience the Abbey as a living church by attending evensong, sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir. (Evensong sung at 15.00 Saturday and Sunday, and at 17.00 on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. On Wednesday, the service is spoken.)
For sidelights on London, stroll down Parliament Street…
From Broad Sanctuary and Parliament Street to Trafalgar Square is less than a mile – but it’s a mile packed with insights into London history.
The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom occupies the restored art deco building at the corner. Visitors are welcome to drop in on court hearings and watch bewigged barristers at work. The atrium coffee shop is open to the public.
The Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms are tunnelled under Government Buildings (detour down King Charles Street). This is the secret bunker from which Winston Churchill directed World War II. The warren of 27 rooms includes all the necessary offices, plus Mrs Churchill’s bedroom with chintz covered arm chair. (Open daily, last admission 17.00.)
Downing Street leads off Parliament Street but iron gates block access. Join the sightseers on the left for the best view of the Prime Minister’s home at Number 10.
Where Parliament Street becomes Whitehall, mounted cavalrymen stand guard under twin arches. Since 1750, this has been the Household Cavalry’s headquarters; here it prepares for ceremonial work such as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Walk under the arch to the Household Cavalry Museum. Inside, through a glass partition, you can glimpse the day’s work being carried out in the stables. (Open daily until 17.00.)
Directly across Parliament Street, visit the Banqueting House designed by Indigo Jones for King James in 1622; its crowning glory is an astonishing ceiling by Rubens. The Banqueting House was designed as the setting for royal masqued balls, but is best remembered as the site of King Charles’s execution in 1649. (Open 10.00 to 17.00. Closed Sunday and for private functions.)
In Trafalgar Square – the geographical centre of London – a statue of Lord Nelson surveys the traffic from his plinth. Behind him, the huge National Gallery houses one of Europe’s major collection’s of European paintings. (Open until 18.00 but on Friday until 21.00.)
Around the corner from the gallery is the porticoed entrance to St Martin-in-the-Fields. Don’t fail to experience the sublime interior of this 18th century church. It features an intriguing East Window, designed by an Iranian-born artist. The church holds free concerts, usually at 13.00 and 19.45. The popular “Cafe in the Crypt” is downstairs.
Something to read:
If the War Rooms under Whitehall kindle your imagination, you’ll love Double Cross: the True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.
The five key D-Day spies were one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a wildly imaginative Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a hysterical Frenchwoman whose obsessive love for her pet dog very nearly wrecked the entire deception. Read it and wonder how they kept it all straight.. and made a massive contribution to winning the war.