If you know someone who knows someone, whose place of work is the Houses of Parliament, it's possible to get taken for a quick tour after hours. And it turns out I do know someone who knows someone, which I discovered when an unexpected invite slipped through earlier this month, which was a more than pleasant surprise.
Last time I visited the House of Commons, to watch a debate, I entered through the main visitor entrance on Cromwell Green. But this time we slipped in via a scaffolded passage up the far side, through Black Rod's Garden, and this proved a somewhat more chummy affair. I was expecting to have my photo taken so I could wear it round my neck, but this time the dangly badge was generic, and I assume a hidden camera behind the scenes somewhere had already recorded what I look like and deduced precisely who I was.
Parliament's backside is unexpectedly mundane. Behind all the gothic splendour is a long courtyard which runs pretty much the entire length of the building, and a narrow service road which actually does. This part-arched passageway looks like it was designed with horse-drawn vehicles in mind, perhaps to bring supplies in, or to whisk MPs out. The whole backyard area is somewhat dreary, part used as car park, part as storage bay. I don't know whether every night is bin night at the Palace of Westminster, or whether I just turned up on the wrong day, but blimey there were a lot corralled outside.
The ground floor passageway closest to the river connects to a variety of hospitality and function rooms. After hours these host a variety of lubricated gatherings, perhaps a symposium for specific delegates or perhaps individuals invited by a single MP. We walked past open doors behind which were neatly laid tables, wine glasses sparkling, and past closed doors from which emerged a variety of smartly-dressed guests nipping to the loo. What they thought of plebs in jeans wandering through these hallowed corridors I don't know, but I could hazard a guess.
This being a government building, no unnecessary expense has been spared. Printouts of parliamentary business poke out of recycling bins on cheap thin grey paper. A machine stands ready to dispense Trainline tickets, first class and open returns no doubt entirely discouraged. Canteen food is massively subsidised, according to the priced menu outside, so Monday's breakfast kippers cost only £1.41, a toasted teacake is yours for 62p, and a crumpet with honey considerably less than that.
The lowly corridor linking refreshment to democracy proceeds drably from the waterfront. At one point a service road crosses its path, somewhat unexpectedly, with STOP splashed across the tarmac to avoid accidentally running down a peer. What passes for a grand staircase rises up and splits towards debating level, all wooden panels and drapes. Or take the private back stairs, meandering past office doors with mysterious painted designations, the Parliamentary Labour Party's internal postbox, and a gloomy portal beckoning towards the eyrie of Brexit overlord David Davis.
If Parliamentary business concluded long enough ago, the central lobbies are jarringly quiet. Security keep watch as a handful of staff wander through, on a sliding scale from intern to grandee, many of them with eager guests in tow. The red screens and the green screens have nothing further to announce. Ceilings dazzle. Huge Victorian paintings line ceremonial corridors. The "No Photography" signs are still in place. "Sure," nod the clerks, "it's still open."
It's always an amazing privilege to step onto the floor of the House of Commons, especially as an unelected voter. Britain's chief debating chamber is a gladiatorial saloon, green benches set two sword's-widths apart, surrounded by a mostly-unused gallery. Microphones hang from the ceiling like innumerable black spiders, and TV cameras point down from on high, making the chamber look wider and less tall than it really is. A set of order papers lies scrunched up on a back bench, near Jo Cox's coat of arms. The despatch boxes are clear.
To exit requires walking past the Table of the House, from which the Mace has been removed overnight. Those in the know walk down the government side, rather than the opposition, through a gap from which the greatest speeches of our time have been delivered. I wonder what that button in the armrest of the Speaker's Chair is for? Two giant electronic screens continue to tick down the time, despite nobody watching. The Queen has been in this room less often than I have.
The House of Lords is a more magnificent beast, in timber and gold, like the heart of a county cathedral. Its benches are a luxuriant red, with speakers embedded so that peers can listen in while pretending to be asleep. At the far end is the glittering throne where the Queen very occasionally sits, fenced off to keep out the aristocratic hoi polloi. If your parents had the right parents, or your God is the right God, or your achievements once impressed the Prime Minister of the day, you too might one day be entitled to sit here, but rarely turn up.
The neighbouring chambers are also wildly impressive, if less historic than the Victorians tried to make them out to be. Here are writing desks with inkwells, and screens painted with royal wives, and partly-hidden fire extinguishers, and fenced-off corners where the tiles are being replaced, and giant murals celebrating the two battles 19th century Britons were most proud of, and suites of recycling bins, and the mirror where the Queen adjusts her crown. If the country ever needs to sell off some of its gold, a fair wodge of it is on the ceilings.
And the best place to finish such a private tour is back on the Terrace, up the steps past the cafeteria, overlooking the Thames. At tables along the river are staff relaxing with after-work pints, and suited folk with laptops and glasses of wine, and merry souls spilling out of hospitality pavilions. One bonus is that guests aren't allowed to frequent the Strangers' Bar, so your guide has to pay for the round, and emerge with it two glasses at a time. The downside is that this discourages progression onto a second drink.
A Serjeant-at-Arms keeps watch on Terrace decorum. Two armed police keep a permanent eye on the river, lest anything untoward might emerge from the least secure flank of the Parliamentary estate. The view towards Westminster Bridge is unnervingly unusual, and somewhat privileged. Sip your beer for long enough and the lanterns along the Thames light up, and the London Eye glows red, and the overtopping planes become mere pinpricks of noise. And when you're done, go take one last look at Westminster Hall, be sure to thank your host, and push back through the turnstiles to reality.