Halfway across London on the 51½th line of latitude - essentially a random circle drawn around the earth - we cross into Westminster and totally hit the jackpot. How's this for a world famous quartet? [map][75 photos]
Amazingly, 51½°N passes directly through the Palace of Westminster, at the very heart of British democracy. Perhaps more amazingly it passes through the House of Commons [51.5°N 0.124°W], I believe immediately behind the Speaker's chair. Sadly it's not possible to go inside and find out, because getting your phone out to check the GPS coordinates isn't permitted, so I never got the opportunity to confirm when I took a private tour earlier in the year. So, short of getting elected, I visited the next best thing...
Westminster Hall [51.5°N 0.125°W]
The oldest building in Parliament, built at the behest of William II in 1097, Westminster Hall was once by far the largest hall in Europe. And if you fancy taking a look inside, it's free to visit. I think you can just walk up on spec, but I pre-booked a ticket to view the latest exhibition tucked away in the corner of the hall... two hours notice was fine. I waved my printout at the visitor entrance and swanned down the ramp, entirely alone other than Oliver Cromwell watching over me. At the bottom I went through all the obligatory airport-style security procedure, relieved that I'd remembered not to bring a bag or wear a belt. And I noted that there were at least 16 people present in this small anteroom, watching over the scanners and conveyors, some with guns, and was almost pleased I'd turned up to give a few of them something to do.
Westminster Hall is an architectural marvel, especially the enormous 14th century hammerbeam roof, a fortunate survivor of blaze and blitz. A lot of it's under sheets and scaffolding at the moment, which is good news for its longevity, but less than great if all you want to do is admire. It has to be said that the general impression isn't helped either by the presence of a large exhibition in one corner, but it is an excellent exhibition so more than deserves its summer residency. It's called Voice & Vote, an archive-rich history of women's place in Parliament, and will be straddling 51.5°N until 6th October. From its opening line ("Women have always participated in politics, but not on equal terms with men") it is perfectly pitched.
I discovered that in the 18th century women were only allowed to view Parliamentary proceedings by peering down through a ventilator in the roof, and that the campaign for the vote started well before the suffragettes. I saw the plaque Tony Benn had placed on a broom cupboard in honour of Census-overnighter Emily Davison, and the actual Acts which sequentially introduced the vote for all. I learned that the first female MP stood for Sinn Fein so never took her seat, and was inspired when Mhairi Black stared me in the face and told me why she's proud to be here. It never hurts to be reminded about the intricacies of the battle for equality, and it's always worth remembering that Westminster Hall is totally open for a visit.
Most of the others thronging Westminster Hall were on official £20 tours, which are daily during the summer recess, or suited staff nipping out through mysterious doors. A lot of milling around was going on, as groups stopped to hear a nugget of original history, or hunted for the plaque showing where Winston Churchill lay in state. The shop was also popular, especially because the cafe is currently closed for renovation so it was the only place to buy refreshment. Parched souls who only wanted a bottle of water were being forced to queue behind folks on coach trips stocking up on House of Lords wine gums, or even House of Commons babygrows. Democracy is a many-faceted and splendid thing.
St Margaret's Church [51.5°N 0.127°W]
Sorry, not quite Westminster Abbey, but the parish church in its shadow facing out onto Parliament Square. The current building's fast approaching 500 years old and serves a very central clientele, so tips the high end of the scale as parish churches go. Also, whereas getting into the Abbey costs £20, popping inside St Margaret's is free, even though you have to join the same queue to get through security. It took me 15 minutes to inch across the churchyard to the bag check, despite not actually having a bag. During the wait I listened in on an American family planning their week-long London trip based solely on where the sightseeing buses would take them, and advised another traveller that no, this wasn't the line for Big Ben. Maybe the scaffolding confused him.
Eventually I reached the front door - I believe access is a lot easier in the winter - and politely put my camera away. Photography is banned inside St Margaret's, as a well-placed pictogram in the aisle decrees, although this doesn't stop bored tourists wandering in for thirty seconds and taking several photos. Alas that means I'm unable to show you how impressive the interior is, especially the ring of historic memorials around the wall. The recipients are an eclectic bunch, as befits a long-standing Westminster building, and include Olaudah Equiano (baptised 1759), Samuel Pepys (married 1656) and Henry Layard, Discoverer of Nineveh (died 1894). I was hoping to join the "free 20 minute tour with one of our guides" advertised outside the front door, but no guide turned up at the appointed time, nor either side of it, so that was my opportunity to be properly educated royally stuffed. Sung Eucharist is held every Sunday morning at eleven, which is no doubt a better bet.
Methodist Central Hall [51.5°N 0.130°W]
In readiness for the centenary of John Wesley's death, the Methodist Church asked its followers to each contribute one guinea towards a worldwide mission fund. They raised a million, and MethodistCentral Hall was the largest project to be delivered. This grand baroque building (opened in 1911) was deliberately designed not to look like a church, indeed the current chapel was formerly a branch of Midland Bank. Wesley's Cafe in the basement is a useful drop-in for non-chain refreshment, but you can also go inside for a proper look-around. Volunteers run free 20 minute tours, and these actually happen, although the one I went on started late and then lasted 70 minutes. I had no complaints.
The main hall sits beneath the world's second largest self-supporting ferro-concrete dome (narrowly beaten by a Melbourne library, we were told). The organ is also magnificent although these days the congregation doesn't usually fill the upper tiers of cinema-style seating. The first session of the United Nations was held in this room in 1946, and the minutes are now on display in the visitor centre, along with a set of leatherbound volumes containing the names of all those million who gave a guinea. As for the grand staircase, this was based on the Paris Opera House and makes quite an impression, although it can't have been much fun for older members of the congregation to tackle before they put the lifts in.
But the best bit of the tour came when our guide unlocked a side door on the upper landing, and led us outside onto the balcony with a mischievous smile. This is the same door the presenter of the BBC's New Year's Eve concert dashes out of just before midnight so they can stand on the balcony and gesture towards Big Ben, the London Eye and the imminent fireworks. But it's the more immediate view which is most striking, of Westminster Abbey full on, its twin western towers rising in sheer magnificence (and to a lesser extent the QE2 Conference Centre to one side). I think we kept our guide busy talking and answering questions simply so that we could stay out here and gawp a little longer. I can't guarantee you'll manage the same, and in full sunshine, but sometimes the best London sightseeing is free.
Where next? 51.5°N doesn't quite slice TfL HQ at 55 Broadway, but it does pass through the Ministry of Justice in their Brutalist spaceship opposite. It also passes through the Guards Museum, a repository of all things Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh. Next it spans Wellington Barracks, not quite gracing St James's Park. And then, well, who'd have guessed?
Buckingham Palace [51.5°N 0.143°W]
My chosen line of latitude misses the front, where the Queen waves on special occasions, but hits the tradesmen's entrance round the back of the State Rooms. Look for the wall topped with urns and follow it round. I watched a flow of palace staff returning inside after a break, several in unflattering brown uniforms, and overheard one poor footman claiming that he had no pass and no lunch because his trousers had bust. Here on Buckingham Gate is also the entrance for folk wanting to visit the Queen's Gallery, beneath a portico so outlandish you suspect Prince Charles must have had something to do with it. £12 currently gets you inside to peruse a collection of subcontinental treasures, but I'd recommend spending twice as much to go on the excellent tour of the palace proper instead.
And when that tour is finished you'll be directed across the garden, where the Queen hosts her garden parties, and ushered out of a small back gate on the far side of the lake [51.5°N 0.148°W]. It's fun to stand here on Grosvenor Gate and watch tourists emerge, some dangling gold carrier bags, others wearing a crown they bought in the gift shop, entirely baffled which way to go next. Some turn right for Hyde Park Corner, others turn left for Victoria, and others fall into the hands of the pedicab crew, parked up on the pavement awaiting custom. It's £10 for a lift to Victoria station, which is all of 600m distant, not that I suspect most of those taking advantage of the offer realise this when they climb in.