The area around Westminster and Whitehall in London is always filled with tourists and is home to some of London’s most famous and iconic tourist attractions but step away from the main areas and you’ll discover some parts of London that the tourist rarely sees.
The Houses of Parliament officially known as the Palace of Westminster is one of the most famous buildings in the world and one of the oldest royal palaces in the country. During Saxon times this part of London was an island and probably as early as the 7th century a church dedicated to St Peter was established here. The Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor moved his court to this area in the mid 11th century and built the first royal palace here as well as enlarging St Peter’s into what became the Benedictine Westminster Abbey. The name of Westminster is derived from the fact that the minster was located to the west of the more established St Paul’s Cathedral in the City. The palace was occupied by the English monarchy up until the early 1500’s when after a fire Henry VIII moved his court to the nearby Palace of Whitehall.
Todays Parliament building dates largely from the mid 19th century after a fire in 1834 destroyed almost all of the old palace complex. The current neo-Gothic building was designed by Sir Charles Barry, inside is a warren of 1200 rooms and over two miles of corridors.
The best known part of the building is Big Ben, although the name refers to the great bell inside the Elizabeth Tower. The tower houses five bells of which Big Ben, officially known as the Great Bell of Westminster, is the biggest at over 13 tonnes. It rings the note of E every hour. The original bell cracked during testing, and Big Ben was cast as a replacement at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry on Whitechapel Road in 1858. The tower contains a secret prison cell used for troublemakers within the palace, and it was here where suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was held following a protest in the early 20th century.
Westminster Hall is one of the only original surviving parts of the palace. The hall was built around 1097 by William II and is described as the birthplace of English democracy as it was the original meeting place for the King’s Council, the forerunner of the present House of Lords. It was also the location of the first true English Parliament that included elected representatives, summoned by Simon de Montfort in 1265.
For a long time the hall was used as a law court and has seen some of the most dramatic trails in British history take place under its roof. Scotland’s “Braveheart” William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Queen Anne Boleyn, Guy Fawkes and Charles I were all tried here, it’s also where Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector in 1653. Westminster Hall remained an important law court right up until the 1880’s when the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand were opened.
Votes in the Commons are called by the ringing of the Division Bell. Before the advent of modern technology such as mobile phones many local public houses and restaurants were connected to the Commons so their own bell could let MP’s know when to head back to the House to vote. One such bell can still be seen in the Red Lion pub at 48 Parliament Street.
Across from Westminster Hall and a little further down St Margaret Street is the medieval Jewel Tower built in around 1365. It was used as a stronghold for Edward III’s treasure, later it housed the records for the House of Lords before becoming the office for weights and measures. Today it is a museum.
Next to the Houses of Parliament is Victoria Tower Gardens, just inside the entrance is the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Suffragette movement.
Not far away is Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, one of the finest pieces of public art in London. Rodin’s inspiration was the siege of Calais by the English under Edward III in 1347 during the Hundred Years War. This statue was purchased in 1911 and is one of twelve casts made of the original after Rodin’s death.
Millbank was named after the medieval mill that once stood by the river bank. The large building, Thames House at number 11 Millbank right opposite Lambeth Bridge has been home, since 1995 to MI5, the counter intelligence and security agency concerned with Britain’s domestic security.
Further along Millbank is Tate Britain housing one of the finest art collections in the country, it’s free to enter and is worth a look even if it’s just to take a break in the cafe. The Tate stands on the site of the Millbank Penitentiary. It was built on seven acres of marshland and was for a time when completed in 1821 the largest prison in London. Many ancestors of today’s Australians began their journey from here as nearly all prisoners sentenced to deportation in England passed through Millbank. The prison was finally closed in 1890 and demolished two years later.
On the corner of the street just past the Tate is the Victorian pub the Morpeth Arms, it was built originally for the prison’s warders and still contains the remnants of a tunnel and cellar said to have been part of the prison and used to take prisoners to the Thames. Apparently the tunnel is haunted by the ghost of a prisoner who died down there.
On the other side of the river is the modern building which is home to MI6, the secret intelligence service which looks after Britain’s foreign security interests. You may recognise it from some of the recent James Bond films.
Smith Square was laid out in the 1720’s and is dominated by St John’s Smith Square. The building designed by Thomas Archer started life as the Church of St John the Evangelist and is regarded as one of the finest examples of English Baroque architecture in London.
On the north side of the square are some Georgian houses, some of the finest examples in London, dating from the early 18th century. Number 32 on the square used to be the Conservative Party’s headquarters.
Lord North Street dates from the 1720’s and at number 8 there is a very rare reminder of the Blitz in London. A faded sign reads “Public Shelters in Vaults under Pavements in this Street”, the shelters are still there but have been blocked up after the war.
The streets here are filled with elegant Georgian townhouses and it’s where the wealthier politicians choose to live as they’re a far cry from the tourist dominated streets around Westminster Palace. The locale was evidently hidden enough to attract the famously reclusive T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia). He lived in the attic at number 14 and wrote much of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom whilst living here.
The large stone arch in Great College Street takes you into the wide expanse of Deans Yard, part of Westminster Abbey. The yard is also home to two other historic British institutions, Westminster School and the headquarters of the Church of England.
The proper name for Westminster Abbey is the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster. St Peter’s is neither a cathedral or a parish church but a “Royal Peculiar”, meaning it falls under the jurisdiction of the monarchy and is run by an independent Dean and Chapter. The coronation of almost every monarch has taken place here since 1066 and seventeen of them are buried in the grounds, including St Edward the Confessor.
You can tour the Abbey for a fee and it’s well worth visiting but I want to tell you about a part you can visit for free. Follow the signs for the medieval Cloisters – don’t be put off by the rather rude woman I encountered who seems intent on making a fool of everyone she speaks to – they are a beautifully peaceful space right in the heart of London.
The 900 year old church of St Margaret’s is sited discreetly between the Abbey and the Palace. It was founded when the Benedictine monks of the Abbey decided they no longer wished to share their services with the local people of Westminster. The current church dates mostly from the late 15th century. Sir Walter Raleigh was buried under the alter here after being executed in Old Palace Yard. St Margaret’s is the parish church of the House of Commons and hosts many politicians weddings, both Samuel Pepys and Winston Churchill were married here.
Beside the church is Broad Sanctuary named after the sanctuary that operated here in medieval times, and where criminals could live in relative safety under the protection of the church provided their crimes were not treasonable or heretical.
Just up Storey’s Gate is the Methodist Central Hall which opened in 1912 and can accommodate over 2000 people. It was here in 1946 where the inaugural meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations was held. During the second World War the basement of the hall became England’s largest air raid with a capacity of 2000 people. It was also used for the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in 1968.
Towards the top of Storey’s Gate is the heart of HM Government where a lot of key ministries are based. On Horse Guards Road is the Treasury, next to this on the corner of King Charles Street is the entrance to the Cabinet War Rooms.
The War Rooms were the underground headquarters of Winston Churchill and his cabinet during WWII. After the war the rooms were closed and were only re-opened to the public in 1984. Rumours persist that the underground complex extends far beyond what is open to the public, with secret tunnels connecting the rooms to 10 Downing Street and possibly far beyond. Along King Charles Street the Foreign Office sits on the left hand side.
Downing Street is the home of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The street is named after Sir George Downing an unscrupulous 17th century statesman who first developed the area. Downing spent much of his childhood in Salem, Massachusetts and was the second graduate of the now famous Harvard University. Downing street retains four of the original houses that its founder built. Number 10’s association with the office of Prime Minister can be traced back to when George II offered the house to Sir Robert Walpole in 1732. It became, and technically remains, the office of the First Lord of the Treasury. It was joined to a much bigger house at the rear creating the 160 rooms that lie within it.
The Cabinet Office dates from the mid 19th century and is situated on part of the former Palace of Whitehall. It was on this site that the young Henry VIII carried out his numerous sporting activities. The remains of his tennis courts are visible inside, and the building also contains a Cockpit Gallery named after the site of Henry’s cock fighting pit. The medieval building was later converted into a private residence by Charles II and was first used as a Cabinet Office in around 1720.
Horse Guards is the official entrance into Whitehall, through the arch and past the guards on horseback is the huge open space known as Horse Guards Parade, today it’s best known as the location for the annual Trooping of the Colour ceremony. In the 16th century Henry VIII used to practice jousting here.
On the far right side is an odd shaped brick building covered in ivy known as the Citadel, a bomb proof building erected during WWII and said to still be used as a communications centre by Navy intelligence.
The Banqueting House back on Whitehall was completed in 1622 and designed by Inigo Jones for James I, it is the only surviving part of the Palace of Whitehall. It was from a window on the first floor of this building that Charles I walked out onto a scaffold to be beheaded on 30th January 1649. The ceiling paintings by Peter Paul Rubens are quite something and well worth seeing.
The Ministry of Defence building just to the south of the Banqueting House contains Henry VIII’s wine cellar. The hidden undercroft originally belonged to Cardinal Wolsey and was built around 1515. It contains a Tudor brick vaulted roof 70 feet long and 30 feet wide, unfortunately the cellar is closed to the public.
A little further up Whitehall is Great Scotland Yard, originally part of the precincts of the Palace of Whitehall. Its name may be derived from the tradition that the Kings of Scotland and their courtiers used to stay in this area. Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police here in 1829, and the force became known as “Scotland Yard”. The Met moved out in the late 19th century but the current headquarters is still called New Scotland Yard.