The way thence is through the Peer’ Lobby, the Peers’ Comdor (with some rather spirited historical scenes painted by Cope, especially perhaps the famous one of Charles I’s coffin in the snow), into the Central Lobby, a formidably decorated octagon under a vaulted mosaic glinting ceiling seventy five feet up (it supports the middle lantern tower of the Houses of Parliament). This Lobby is the common ground between Lords and Commons, and also the rallying point of those with business with their members. We shall return to it, but in the meantime pass on into the Commons’ Corridor and through to the Commons’ Lobby (with statues of modern statesmen).
Thence through the Churchill Archmade from stones damaged in the fire of 1941into the House of Commons, and, alas, visually, anti climax. The chamber wherein the voices of Macaulay and Lord John RuskII, of Bright, Gladstone and Disraeli, of Randolph Churchill, of Lloyd George, had sounded was bombed out in 1941, and the replacement gives the impression, after the wealth of the old parts, of being done on the cheap, although furnished with loyal wood from the Commonwealth. However, the traditions remain; the two parties still are ranged opposite each other, with the two red lines in front of the front benches still set two swords’ length apart to avoid unseemly fracas between members. When in session, the daily business is still announced by the procession of the Speaker still in black knee breeches, gown and wig, with the Sergeant at Arms with Mace, train bearer, chaplain, secretary. And passion and tempos still rise, invective still stabs against tweet reason or adept ministerial
side stepping, and though siupicion grows that Britain is really governed from the Cabinet Room at No. 10 Downing Street, it is in the Commons that the fate of individual freedom still lies.
Back in the Central Lobby, worked into Minton’s encaustic tiles, you will find the Latin teat from the Vulgate, meaning ‘Except the Lord keep the house, they labour in vain that build it” The lower reaches of the space are frigid with marble Victorian statesmen, and more of them (supplemented by the most recent, rather pastelly, history paintings, unveiled only in 1927) are in the long hall leading off to the west. This is St Stephen’s Hall, and replaces (he old upper chapel of St Stephen’s, which was for so many years the House of Commons (which is still sometimes referred to as St Stephen’s). Four brass rosettes in the floor mark the spot where once the Speaker’s chair stoodwhence Speaker Lenthall denied Charles 1 when he came to arrest the five members “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to sec nor tongue to speak in this place, but as this House doth direct me whose servant I am …” Since that encounter, three and a quarter centuries ago, the Sovereign has never been admitted to the House of Commons. Hence steps lead down to St Stephen’s Forth, and thence to Westminster Hall.
First perhaps go on down (a staircase from the south east angle of the hall) to the so called crypt of St Stephen’s (which was originally, like the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, in two stories, of which this was the lower, rather than the crypt). It was begun in 1292, and still has what are perhaps the earliest of licme vaults, but is now emblazoned with the copious decoration of nineteenth century restoration. Here M.P.S may marry, and have their children baptised.
Westminster Hall is limply tremendous and its roof in particular is tremendous, perhaps the best in Europe of its kind and date, a maaive oak hammer beam, much as it was (though the wood has been restored against the death watch beetle) when finished in 1402. It has some good late fourteenth century statues of kings, and the angeb at the end of the beams have a quite cheerful grace, but apart from its tresnendousness, Westminster Hall has, most acutely in winter, a chill that is almost an ache. It echoes; a fog can almost dissolve it; it is above all empty, aa if exhausted of occasion that has seen so much occasion. For here from the thirteenth century till the nineteenth were the chief courts of law of England.
Edward II abdicated in this great room, Richard II was deposed, and the air should be keening with death sentences on Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher; on Protector Somerset and on the Earl of Essex, and many more. But most resonantly on Charles I in 1649 “for all which Treasons and Crimes this Court doth adjudge, that he, the said Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer, and public Enemy to the good people of this Nation shall be put to Death by severing of his Head from his Body.”
Over the road from St Stephen’s Porch is the memorial, smoothly severe, to George V, the statue by Reid Dick; and then, set back from the road, in a little moat (where there are trout and goldfish though the trout tend to eat the goldfish), is the last surviving relic of the old domestic Palace of Westminster the Jewel Tower. Of antique, battered fabric (built probably by Yevele originally) it was once Edward Ill’s personal treasury, but became later the record house for the House of Lords. Now restored, it is open to visitors on weekdays (10.30 6.30; October to February to 4), and is a little museum of relics and documents relating to the Palace of Westminster. Farther west from this, along the river side of the road is the pleasant strip of green of Victoria Tower Gardens, with huge plane trees, an excellent command of the river, and statues to the militant Mrs Pankhurst (d. 1928), who led the suffragettes to victory, and to the Burghers of Calais who surrendered to Edward 111 in 1347 to prevent the destruction of their citya cast of that great group by Rodin. Inland, there is a complex of little roads with little houses, very pretty in parts, about the southern skirts of Westminster Abbey, once very slummy but now very smart (desirable rcsidcnccs for M.P.s). In Smith Square, besides some old houses on the west side, and the contrasting habitats of party machines of Left and Right (the Labour Transport House, the Conservative and Unionist Central Office), is the astonishing presence, emphatically and sonorously Baroque after so much Gothic, of St John. Built by Thomas Archer between 1713 28, it was known to Londoners, puritanically scornful of its flamboyance, as the footstool churchfrom a story that Queen Anne gave the architect its principles of design by kicking a footstool upside down. And it has indeed, over the gigantic porches with gigantic columns and spectacularly interrupted pediments, four highly unrestrained towers with pinnacles. Bombed, it has formed the most resonantly forlorn of London ruins, a gorgeous hulk behind barbed wire, boarded windows, with two glorious plane trees loaded and weeping at its blocked entrancebut now, after much campaigning, it is to be restored as a kind of community centre. A little farther south brings you to Lambeth Bridge, whence you can take a last look at the Houses of Parliament, at the river frontin a clear light so symmetrical (“All Grecian” said the contemptuous Pugin, “Tudor details on a classic body”) and yet so mysterious above with towers and pinnacles. And on a misty day, hauntingly romantic, melting and merging in haze along the river.