Touring Parliament, Churchill’s War Rooms, and the East End

Last weekend M and I watched “Darkest Hour,” the Academy Award-nominated film about Winston Churchill, and we recognised several locations. It reminded me I never wrote about a few things we did in London in December that weren’t actually Christmas-related.

Tour of Parliament

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One was a 90-minute guided tour of Parliament. It was fascinating to learn a bit about how Parliament works, and to tour such a historic building.

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Here are a few interesting facts I learned on the tour (note: I have not fact-checked these myself; this is just how I remember what our tour guide said):

  • The Palace of Westminster was built in the year 1016.
  • The building is flanked by the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben’s clock tower) and the Victoria Tower at either end.

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  • The House of Commons is made up of elected officials. Conservative party (Tories), Labour, Liberal Democrats, and smaller parties. The Prime Minister is the head of the majority party, so the British people vote for a party, not a person in an election.
  • The House of Lords is made up of appointed positions, and they are for life. They are experts in various subjects and can provide their expertise on matters.

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  • The House of Commons is green, and the House of Lords is red.

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  • The members of the House of Commons vote physically, by going to either the Aye room or the No room.

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  • In the 1600s there was a civil war between the monarchy and parliament. Charles I thought he was above the law and they fought and Parliament won and Charles was tried for treason. The monarchy was abolished. The new government didn’t work very well, so some years later Parliament voted to reinstate a monarchy, so there is now a monarchy by Parliament’s choice. Because of this there is a traditional ceremony at the opening of Parliament when the queen sits on a throne in the House of Lords and someone goes down to the House of Commons and raps on the door with a rod, and the door is slammed in his face. Then it’s reopened and the members of Commons come out and to the queen for her speech. The queen never waits for anyone, but she waits for this. This symbolises Parliament and the House of Commons having a monarch by their own choice.

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  • The House of Commons had to be rebuilt after the Blitz of WWII. Churchill had them rebuild the House of Commons small and have the members of Parliament facing each other like they had originally; he said it would encourage democracy. They originally faced each other like that because the room was a former chapel’s choir stalls.

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  • The building has more than 1,000 rooms and 3 miles of corridors, and 250 miles of cables.

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  • Since 2008 there have been 60 fire-related incidents, which is why the Elizabeth Tower is undergoing major renovations right now and is covered in scaffolding.

 

The other thing M and I did in December was go on a “day date,” when my parents kept the kids for us (thank you, Mom and Dad!!) and we did a few touristy things that we didn’t particularly want to do with kids along.

Churchill’s War Rooms

Our first stop was Churchill’s War Rooms, his secret underground headquarters during WWII.

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This was a handheld-audio-guide tour, and there’s at least an hour and a half of information to listen to as you walk through the rooms. In addition, there is now a Winston Churchill museum to peruse, so you could really spend half a day there.

East End Walking Tour

After that, we took a walking tour of London’s East End, an area we hadn’t really explored before.

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There’s this walking tour company in London called, duh, London Walks (hey, that’s us!) that covers a whole bunch of different themes and areas around the city. The tours are all 2 hours and just £10 a person, and you don’t have to book in advance; just turn up at the time and place listed for the walk you’d like to join and pay in cash.

We did the “Unknown East End” walk and it was interesting, but the weather was dismal and we were somehow completely unprepared for the incessant rain. I had to stop and buy an umbrella, and neither of us had a waterproof coat on or appropriate footwear. It was like amateur hour, I mean really, how long have we lived in London now?

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Our guide told stories about the history of the area (he grew up there) and how it’s always been an immigrant area, though the nationalities of the immigrants living there has changed over time.

There’s currently a large Bangladeshi community in this area, and we met a man who had erected a shiny bust of the founding father of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in front of his house.

We walked down the famous Brick Lane, learned some interesting stories about certain buildings (such as a Jewish temple that’s tucked between two mosques), and saw the hospital where the “Elephant Man” lived.

We ended at Spitalfield’s Market, and warmed up with a Crosstown sourdough donut.

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We finished our date with dinner at the Marksman pub.

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