diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 04, 2010

Random borough (26): Westminster (part 1)

WestminsterFor most tourists, Westminster is London. They take pictures of Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, they go shopping in Oxford Street and Covent Garden, they sit around in Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park, they dine in Soho or Leicester Square, and then they go back to their hotel in Park Lane or Paddington and sleep it all off. And yes, Westminster's important, a city no less, and almost as ancient as the City downriver. But the borough also sprawls into less well-known corners like Pimlico and Maida Vale, and less affluent pockets like Westbourne Green and Lisson Grove. I had a day to cover the lot, so here's my cherry-picking attempt at six representative snippets.

Somewhere famous: Westminster Hall
Westminster HallOK, so Westminster Hall isn't as famous as the Palace nextdoor, or even the clock tower by the river, but it sits at the very heart of British democracy. It was commissioned by William Rufus, and has somehow survived every riot, fire and bombing that nine centuries of existence could throw at it. Indeed in 1941 when German incendiaries threatened to destroy either the Commons or the Hall, the first politician on the scene had no hesitation in sacrificing the MPs chamber in favour of this medieval masterpiece. It's also relatively straightforward to get inside, even if you only picked a piece of paper out of a jamjar a couple of hours earlier. Here's how to do it.

Option 1 is to take a full tour of the Lords and Commons. If you ask your MP nicely, he or she will get you in for free. Or you can pay £14, either to Ticketmaster or to the nice cashiers hidden in booths on the the opposite side of the road by the Jewel Tower. Parliament's open for tours during most of the three month summer recess, and now open on Saturdays too (starting yesterday). But I chose not to do that because I've been round before [been there done that]. Instead I used my in-depth knowledge of Olympic events to charm the Palace staff and get into the Hall for nothing. They didn't want to let me in, the place was very busy with proper tourists, but when I mentioned the free "Parliament and the Games" exhibition they relented. They whipped out a special yellow Houses of Parliament ticket, and down the ramp I went.

Security has been tightened somewhat since the last time I was here. In 2005 a stern lady in a black portakabin poked me with her electronic wand and gave me a very thorough patdown. In 2010 tourists get the hi-tech uber-airport option. You're dripfed through a revolving door, then made to stand on a rubbed-out square while an austere electronic gizmo takes your photograph. This is instantly printed out to create your identity badge, which you hang round your neck, so that even if the guards don't know your name they own your face. Then it's luggage through the X-ray machine, yourself through the scanner-arch, and pray you don't beep else you'll suddenly become especially interesting to all the umpteen police on duty. Parliament, that champion of civil liberties, has no qualms in over-defending itself against incoming lunatics.

Westminster HallBut then you're in, and Westminster Hall is just round the corner past New Palace Yard. As cradles of democracy go, you'd be forgiven for not realising the room's importance. On tour days this is the waiting room, so there are 5 queueing bays to join at the end of the hall, plus a place to hang around for all the scores of people who've arrived early. It's also the exit hall, where the Blue Badge guides take leave of their guests, so there are folk streaming back the other way towards the Jubilee cafe and the exit. Do they stop and look upwards at the statues inlaid in the window niches? Do they gasp in awe at the largest hammerbeam roof in Europe? Do they pause to read the plaques marking the spots where Churchill and the Queen Mother's coffins laid in state? Well, a few of them do, but the majority are simply keen to get on to the next bit of the trail as swiftly as possible. When you go, linger longer.

Parliament and the GamesThere's usually an exhibition in Westminster Hall, and (as I hinted) the current display focuses on Parliament's connections to the Olympic Games. There are plenty of links, possibly more than you might imagine, and not just Westminster passes the laws that make them happen. A number of MPs are former Olympians, including Menzies Campbell and of course Sebastian Coe. Seb's 1980 running shoes are on display, as well as Ming's blazer and several items from the two previous times the UK hosted the Games. There's the letter we wrote to the IOC offering to host the 1940 Games, back when a two-page typewritten missive sufficed as a bid document. Then there's a 1908 programme, and the menu card from an official Edwardian sporting dinner. And a torch, because there has to be a torch. Plus of course plenty of information (and models, lots of lovely plastic models of stadia and stuff) for the upcoming Games in 2012. The exhibition's not huge, designed mostly as a promotional snifter for Palace-bound tourists passing through. But it is an excellent excuse to go and visit a medieval democratic treasure you really should have visited by now. [open daily 10am - 5pm until Aug 28th, not Sundays]
by tube: Westminster

Somewhere historic: Westminster Cathedral
Westminster CathedralYes, everybody goes to Westminster Abbey, so I went to its ecumenical half-sister. Westminster Cathedral is the most important Roman Catholic church in the country, assuming you don't count all the really old Roman Catholic churches (like Westminster Abbey) which Henry VIII forced to switch sides in the 16th century. The building officially celebrated its 100th birthday last week, so it's a mere youngster by comparison. The exterior's striking, when viewed through a gap in the shops along Victoria Street, with a thin Byzantine tower rising high above the red/white striped brick façade. It's even more striking inside, especially to Anglicans used to more traditional stone Gothic edifices. A long nave leads down to a high High Altar, the roof supported by great marble columns. More than 100 different types of marble were used in the building's construction, and it shows. There are several chapels to either side, many arched with with intricate mosaic ceilings, and a steady stream of votive candles burning in front of each. The fourteen Stations of the Cross, they're by the sculptor Eric Gill, while that's a big bronze Jesus suspended on the giant crucifix over the sanctuary. Look above your head, however, and the main ceiling is remarkably plain. A quartet of dark domes, and a series of brick arches which reminded me somewhat of the underside of a Victorian railway viaduct. Nevertheless the spirituality of the space is self-evident, and tourists are thankfully in the minority outnumbered by those who've come to pray, reflect or worship.

For one other special treat, make your way to the gift shop. A fiver paid, you can pass through to the lift where a trained operator will whisk you seven storeys up to the top of the tower. They're quite large storeys, apparently, because the viewing platform is a full 90 metres above the ground. It's four sided too, with excellent opportunities to stare (and take unobstructed photos) across all corners of Westminster and beyond. To the southeast the cathedral's four copper domes rise like a row of squat emerald nipples [photo], with the chimneys of Pimlico and Vauxhall beyond [photo]. I especially rated the view to the southwest because the sightlines to Battersea and the Thames are clear and there are no horrible new buildings right up close [photo]. Looking northwest, the smooth curves of Cardinal Place [photo] are somewhat diminished by a grim tower block and several nasty blocky constructions [photo]. To the north the unmistakeable green line of the Mall cuts horizontally beneath the skyline [photo]. But it's the eastern vista that's the most disappointing. St Paul's, the Eye, the Abbey and the Gherkin, they're all sort of visible, but glimpsed through a forest of blandly upstanding Civil Service architecture [photo]. Only the rarity of this 360° panorama justifies the five quid, although viewed as a donation to the cathedral coffers it's worth every penny.
by tube: Victoria


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