Westminster. The seat of the British Government, where Monarchs and Prime Ministers past and present have presided over a Global Empire which once encompassed 1/5 of the people on Earth, across every inhabited continent. It’s time to delve into one of the world’s most important and influential cities, London, starting with its political centre, Westminster…
City of Westminster:
Status: City of Westminster, Greater London (historically Middlesex), City, England
Travel: Virgin Trains (Carlisle/Preston – London Euston), London Underground (Various Lines), Southern Trains (Croydon – London Victoria)
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, River Thames, Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, British Museum, Nelson’s Column, Hyde Park, Green Park, Buckingham Palace, Admiralty Arch, Harrods, Horse Guards Parade, 10 Downing Street, The Cenotaph, Baker Street, London Underground, Marble Arch, Madame Tussauds, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Royal Albert Hall, Albert Memorial, Cleopatra’s Needle, Somerset House, Victoria Memorial, Waterloo Bridge, Somerset House etc
For many, a trip to London will begin at what is perhaps the most famous building in the United Kingdom, and 1 of the most iconic clocks in the world. The Palace of Westminster sits on the banks of the River Thames, looking out across the historic border between the counties of Middlesex and Surrey, parts of which now form areas of Greater London.
Much like the city around it, the Palace has a long history, dating back to the Middle Ages when the original version was completed. At the time the reigning monarch of England (long before the Union) resided here, until 1534 when King Henry VIII bucked the trend and moved into York Place, which became the Palace of Whitehall. Parliament had already been held regularly at Westminster since 1295 so Parliament moved in permanently, and the two houses (Lords and Commons) still meet here today.
Sadly in 1834 most of the building was destroyed by a fire, resulting in a complete rebuild, in the gothic style. The architect for the new building was Charles Barry (1795 – 1860, English Architect from London) and construction started in 1840. Whereas the original building hadn’t been intended for Government use, the new one had purpose built chambers for the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The 1st to be completed was that of the Lords in 1847, followed by the Commons in 1852. By 1870 the rest of the Palace had been finished, and London had gained one of the most easily recognisable buildings in the world.
At the far right is St Stephens Tower, topped out in 1858. Commonly known as Big Ben, it contains the largest 4 faced clock in the world, and the whole tower stands a total of 315 ft tall. In 2012 it was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Big Ben as a name refers to the largest of the great bells in the tower, created in 1856 by John Warner & Sons from Stockton-in-Tees. It was named after Sir Benjamin Hall (1802 – 1867, British Engineer) and the name caught on and is used to refer to the tower as a whole today. For residents of the UK only, if you contact your local MP then you can often arrange for a tour around the tower itself. Big Ben is complemented by the Victoria Tower at the other end of the palace, which is slightly taller at 323 ft.
The London Blitz took a heavy toll on the city during 1941, completely destroying the House of Commons, which was subsequently rebuilt by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880 – 1960, English Architect who also created Liverpool Cathedral). Today the building is still the seat of Government for the United Kingdom, and a truly beautiful part of British history.
Crossing the Thames directly in front of Big Ben is “Westminster Bridge”, which has been through a few different incarnations, starting with the original wooden bridge in 1750. Built to designs by a Swiss architect named Charles Labelye (1705 – 1762) it took 11 years to complete and was a vital link over the Thames, as the nearest bridge in central London at the time was: Down Stream: 2.6 miles to London Bridge/Up Stream: 5.4 Miles to Putney Bridge.
The bridge lasted until the late 19th Century, as it was deteriorating rapidly. The new bridge was designed by Thomas Page (1803 – 1877), and completed in 1862. The seven arches span the 826.8 ft across the river, and it remains the oldest road bridge in the city centre.
Looking back towards the Palace of Westminster, a rather shiny building to the right of Big Ben often attracts the attention of visitors. This is Portcullis House, and is unofficially an extension of the Palace, as a number of MP’s moved over to this building in 2001 because of overcrowding at the Palace itself. Directly beneath the building sits Westminster Tube Station, where the Circle, District & Jubilee lines of the London Underground all meet. There has been a station here for over a century, but originally, when it opened in 1868 it was a surface station. The newest incarnation was constructed at the same time as Portcullis House, during the 1990’s and is 1 of the most modern Tube Stations on the network.
Directly behind the Houses of Parliament lies the aptly named Parliament Square, home to a number of statues of famous historical figures. In the 1st picture, with Big Ben in the background, you can see the backs of:
1) Benjamin Disraeli (1804 – 1881, held office as UK Prime Minister twice)
2) Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948, campaigner for Indian Independence from the UK)
Overlooking the Western boundary of the square sits Middlesex Guildhall, a stunning gothic building completed in 1913 to the designs of J. S. Gibson. It currently houses the Supreme Court of the UK, and outside in the grounds stands a statue of Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865, famous US President Assassinated in 1865). The only other statue of Lincoln we have seen in the UK is located on Calton Hill in the Scottish Capital, Edinburgh. Interestingly Lincoln was the 1st of 4 metal versions of US Presidents we would see on our trip to London.
At the Southern boundary of the square is Westminster Abbey, the official coronation Church of the British Royal Family, used most recently for the wedding of Prince William & Kate Middleton in 2011.
The present incarnation of the Abbey dates back to 1245 when construction was started by King Henry III (1207 – 1272), and the Abbey’s Abbot soon became associated with the Palace and Government, becoming directly responsible in Church matters. Additions continued over the next few centuries, and wouldn’t be complete until 1517, when Richard II (1367 – 1400) was on the throne. The Abbey continued to prosper, becoming one of the wealthiest in England, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1535, instigated by King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) when he established the Church of England. Thankfully Henry granted the building Cathedral Status, sparing it from destruction and cementing its future. A turbulent few centuries saw it lose Cathedral status, become an Abbey again, and then a Royal Peculiar, which meant it was a Church for the reigning Monarch. The towers shown on the picture were added by 1745, built out of beautiful Portland Stone. It escaped the blitz almost unscathed, like it’s Sister Cathedral in the ancient City of London area, St Pauls.
One of the Abbey’s defining features is the Gothic North Facade, with its distinctive rose window, added in the 18th Century, and now one of the most famous parts of the building, which protrudes from the left side of the building.
Although slightly dwarfed by its famous counterpart, the Church of St Margarets lies to the left of the Rose Window, with its distinctive square tower visible above the treeline. Throughout history it has been almost the polar opposite of the Abbey, as it was originally built to allow local people living near the Abbey to worship on their own, rather than with the monks. It later became the Parish Church of the Palace of Westminster, and is officially the Parish Church of the House of Commons today, as parliament didn’t see eye to eye with the Monks next door. The present structure dates back to 1738 when John James (1673 – 1746, Hampshire Architect) rebuilt the main tower, and had the building clad in Portland Stone, which is mined on the Isle of Portland in Dorset.
Outside Westminster Abbey, standing in the centre of the road, is a tall column called the”Crimean War & Indian Mutiny Memorial”. It was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811 – 1878, English Architect) and completed in 1861. The column stands in memory of pupils from Westminster School who died in both conflicts, the Crimean War (1854 – 1856) and the Indian Mutiny (1857 – 1858). The tall red granite column is topped off with a statue of St George, the patron saint of England.
To the right of the monument sits the “Sanctuary”, a series of buildings also built by Gilbert Scott, originally terraced houses, with a gateway in the centre which lead through to Dean’s Yard behind. Together the 3 structures, the Abbey, the Memorial and the Sanctuary all come together to create 1 of the best views in Central London. You will also have spotted the sleek form of the brand new London buses, the LT2, which were introduced onto routes around London in 2012. Their intricate curves and streamlined exterior have managed to both preserve the classic Red London Bus, as well as update it for the future, and they are proving very popular around the city.
Heading back across Parliament Square to “Birdcage Walk”, we followed the road West towards Horse Guards Road, which of course is home to the famous “Horse Guards Parade”, shown above. The ground the large parade square now stands on once belonged to the Palace of Whitehall (leading to this area of Westminster being known as Whitehall), which had at 1 point been the largest palace in the whole of Europe, with 1.5 thousand rooms home to the English Kings & Queens, their staff and all the functions of government, before it was later destroyed by a fire in 1698.
It was replaced by a number of different buildings, before the square area saw use as a Civil Service car park in the 20th century. This was finally removed in 1997, and the square is now regularly used for the “Trooping of the Colour”, an annual celebration of the Queen’s birthday.
A number of important buildings line the square on the North & East sides:
Government Offices, which were originally built as the offices of the Admiralty in 1895. Like many buildings in central London, particularly around this area of Westminster & Whitehall, it has been lined with Portland Stone, which is used to great effect.
East (Straight Ahead)
Horse Guards, originally designed as the Army Headquarters by William Kent in 1748, and finally completed in 1759 after 10 years of construction. Again the building is clad in Portland Stone, and the far side of the building faces out onto “Whitehall”, a famous road which takes in a number of London landmarks, including Downing Street and the Cenotaph, but more on those later.
The building on the far right, in front of the London Eye which graces the sky overhead, is Dover House, AKA The Scotland Office. What began life as a mansion in 1758 eventually became the home of Government for Scotland, until the Scottish Parliament was established in Edinburgh in 1999. Today a small number of Scottish functions remain at Westminster, under the supervision of the Secretary of State for Scotland.
The Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley (1769 – 1852, British Military Commander who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo) was based here at Horse Guards for a time. A statue of him stands in the square, close to the rear end of Downing Street itself.
Directly across from Horse Guards Parade when looking West is St James’s Park, 1 of 2 large parks, the other being Green Park, which encircle Buckingham Palace and the Mall. A park has existed here as far back as 1603 when it was turned into a sort of Zoo/Park by King James I (1566 – 1625).
The waterway through the centre was actually a canal when it was added in the 16th century, however it was later remodelled in the 19th to give it a curvier, and more natural shape. If you walk towards the West end of the park where it meets Buckingham Palace you get some stunning views back through the Park, and beyond to the London Eye and Big Ben. We were lucky that day as we had just survived a rain shower, and it afforded us a lovely rainbow, faintly visible at the far left of the picture.
Leaving Green Park, we arrived at Buckingham Palace, home of the monarch of the United Kingdom since Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) ascended to the throne in 1837. The building has it’s origins as a large house built by the Duke of Buckingham (1648 – 1721, English Poet) as his personal residence in 1703. The main section of the house still exists, and forms the inner portion of today’s palace. It’s next occupant was Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744 – 1818, wife of King George III) after he bought her the house in 1761, and she would go on to give birth to a number of her children here, with the only exception being Henry’s successor, King George IV (1762 – 1830). It was George who would start the transformation from house to Palace, but he never saw its completion, and passed away in 1830 with the work half done. His brother, King William IV (1765 – 1837), saw the work finished, but it wasn’t until Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) arrived on the throne that it became the official residence. The building was originally made up of 3 large blocks, with a courtyard in the centre bounded on either side and at the back, but Victoria had the view in the picture above added around 1847, enclosing the Courtyard and making the building a large square. It is known as the East Front, and contains the famous Balcony where Monarchs and Prime Ministers have addressed the nation throughout the last 200 years. The East Front was originally much more squared off, but in 1913 the present design was adopted and it was remodelled, by Sir Aston Webb (1849 – 1930).
It is still in use today, and Queen Elizabeth uses it as her primary residence. The flag flying above the building signifies whether she is at home, as the Royal Standard flies when she is in residence, and the Union Jack when she is away. At night, the Palace looks resplendent, and is arguably one of the finest buildings in the country, and 1 of the most famous out of all the Royal Residences, which include Windsor Castle, Balmoral and Holyrood.
Tour are available for the Palace State Rooms, between December & February, and you can find out more on the official Palace website here.
Acting almost as a roundabout directly in front of the East Front, is the Victoria Monument, created by Sir Thomas Brock (1847 – 1922) in 1911, 10 years after Queen Victoria’s death. The beautifully cast bronze statues were a later addition, from 1924 and includes the angels of Justice and Truth. Victoria herself sits on the far side, looking up the Mall towards Admiralty Arch at the other end.
Running North East from the East Front/Victoria Memorial, towards Trafalgar Square is the Mall, a ceremonial road where grand processions are often held. The most recent grand event was the carriage of Prince William & Kate Middleton returning to Buckingham Palace after the royal wedding at Westminster Abbey.
There are a number of landmarks along the Mall itself, starting with the Monument to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1900- 2002) and King George VI (1895 – 1952), the parents of the present Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Each has their own statue, looking out onto the Mall where they themselves made the ceremonial journey towards the Palace many times.
Further along towards Trafalgar Square stands a large column, but this 1 isn’t topped by Nelson, but a statue of the Duke of York, Prince Frederick (1763 – 1827, 2nd Eldest Son of King George III). The Column was erected in 1832, in honour of the man who had formerly been the head of the British Armed Forces.
The Mall terminates at Admiralty Arch, shown above. The Arch, like the East Front of the Palace, was also designed by Sir Aston Web, and was completed a year after the Victoria Monument. In the centre are 3 arches, for road and pedestrian access to the Mall, along with large sections on either side of the arches which until recently housed the Government offices of the Cabinet Office. It has now been sold to be converted into a hotel, and will surely become one of the most highly sought after locations for a room in London, looking down the Mall towards the Palace.
Moving through the Arch, we arrived in Trafalgar Square, possibly the most famous square in London. Rising high into the air at it’s centre is Nelson’s Column, which stands 169.3 ft tall, complete with a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758 – 1805,who led the British Royal Navy to victory against the French & Spanish Fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar, and numerous other battles) on the top. The Battle of Trafalgar was fought near Cape Trafalgar in Spain, on 21st October 1805, and ended in a decisive victory for the British, however Nelson was shot whilst on deck of the HMS Victory, and he died surrounded by his crew.
His body was brought back to Britain and his funeral was held at St Pauls Cathedral in the historic City area of London. Nelson’s Column was erected between 1840 and 1843, with the central column built out of Dartmoor Granite. The statue of Nelson himself is sandstone, and around the base of the column’s pedestal there are 4 bronze panels depicting notable battles Nelson participated in, as well as his eventual death aboard the Victory. Below the pedestal are a series of steps, upon which sit 4 bronze lions, 1 on each corner, facing away from the centre of the monument, which were added later in 1867. A number of designers contributed to the project:
William Railton (1800 – 1877): The Column
Edward Hodges Baily (1788 – 1867): The Statue
Sir Edwin Landseer (1802 – 1873): The Lions
Nelsons ship the HMS Victory survived the battle and can currently be found in the famous Naval Dockyard in the city of Portsmouth, Hampshire, on England’s South coast.
Around the outside of the square lie 4 plinths. The 2 at the front of the square feature statues of Sir Henry Havelock (1795 – 1857, British General) and Sir Charles James Napier (1782 – 1853, British Army’s Chief in India), and 1 of the 2 outside the National Gallery features King George IV (1762 – 1830) riding a horse. The 4th plinth was supposed to have a statue of King William IV (1765 – 1837) also on his horse, but funding ran out and the statue was abandoned. Eventually an idea to feature different pieces of artwork on the plinth was agreed, and there have been various pieces over the years, from Katharina Fritsch’s blue chicken (Hahn/Cock) to the Ship in a Bottle, to Anthony Gormley’s “One & Other”, where 2,400 people over 100 days each stood on the plinth for 1 hour. The current artwork on show is called “Gift Horse”, designed by Hans Haacke, which has stood here since March 2015. Around it’s front leg is a live feed from the Stock Exchange, which is constantly changing and updating.
There have been a number of discussions about permanent installations for the plinth, and it has been suggested it may be reserved for a future statue of Queen Elizabeth II.
Nelson is stood facing South, and behind him sits the National Gallery (with the dome on top), completed in 1838. It houses thousands of paintings, some of which date back over 700 years. During World War II a lot of the collection was rehoused in North Wales to protect it from falling German bombs. Outside the Gallery stand the 2 Trafalgar Fountains, a late addition to the squares design, in 1841. Explore the collections and plan your own trip to the National Gallery on their official website here.
There are many interesting walking routes you can take around the City of Westminster, but we chose 1 that linked all our favourite landmarks together, and brought us back out at Big Ben. Having started at the Houses of Parliament, we had wandered through to Parliament Square, Westminster Abbey, Horse Guards Parade and Green Park to Buckingham Palace. Following the Mall down to Trafalgar Square we were then at the Northern End of “Whitehall” which leads directly from Nelson’s Column to Big Ben, via the above landmarks…
In the centre of the road, just South of the East entrance to Horse Guards Parade, lies the “Women of World War II” Memorial, which commemorates the huge contribution that British Women made during the War. Whilst a large percentage of the male population was off fighting around the world, they stepped up to run the country, from the Police to Factory work, and without them the country would undoubtedly have collapsed. The memorial was erected in 2005 to designs by John W. Mills (Born 1933, London Sculptor).
A short walk from the memorial will bring you to the Eastern/Main entrance to Downing Street, 1 of the most famous streets in the world. A set of gates bar entrance to the street from the public, but it contains Number 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British Prime Minister, who at the time of writing is David Cameron (Conservative Party). Number 10 is part of a row of stunning Georgian buildings, completed in 1684 and resulted from 3 previously separate buildings being joined together. It’s 1st Prime Ministerial inhabitant was Sir Robert Walpole, who had the building confirmed for use by all future holders of the title “1st Lord of the Treasury” which is a ceremonial title given to the Prime Minister.
Whilst Number 10 is the most famous, the other houses in the row also contain important Government residences:
Number 9 – Current home of the Chief Whip’s Office (responsible for Party Discipline).
Number 11 – Official residence of the 2nd Lord of the Treasury, AKA the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Number 12 – Officially associated with the Chief Whip, however it is currently used as the Prime Ministers press office.
Just a few yards further South is the Cenotaph, which was designed by Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944, London Architect). There have been two versions of the Memorial, both by Lutyens. The 1st was a wooden one, erected at the end of World War I as a temporary structure, but the design was very popular, so it was replaced with a 2nd, made out of Portland Stone, which emulated the original design. It’s iconic shape has been the basis for various other memorials around the world, as well as a few here in Britain, including the one in Rochdale, Lancashire, which was also designed by Lutyens.
A number of flags line either side of the outer walls, and on this side you can see the Union Jack in the centre, surrounded by the Red Ensign (Merchant Navy) on the right, and a Royal Air Force Ensign (Added in 1943, replacing the White Ensign on this side) on the left. On the other side, is another Union Jack, again in the centre, accompanied by a White Ensign (Royal Ships) and a Blue Ensign (British Territories and Organisations). It’s a beautiful memorial, and has been the scene of many celebrations, most notably in 1945 when VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) was announced. Since 1919, a 2 minute silence has been held here every year, with the reigning monarch in attendance, and it continues to this day, with the Queen and the Prime Minister both laying poppy wreaths here on Remembrance Sunday.
We made our way through to Horse Guards Avenue, which runs East towards the Thames from the Eastern side of Horse Guards Parade, via a number of important buildings, starting with the “War Office”, a large office building completed in 1906. As the name suggests, it was home to the War Office, a Government Department in control of the British Army, until its abolition in 1964. The Department had various previous homes, including Horse Guards Parade itself in the early 18th century.
The Department was later abolished in 1964, when it was merged with the Admiralty and the Air Ministry to form the singular Ministry of Defence. The post of Minister of Defence had already been established as separate from the War Office.
The next building along towards the river is a stunningly detailed structure, shown in the 2nd picture on the right, which forms 1 half of a much larger building called “Whitehall Court”. The 2 halves were built by different architects, however this end dates back to 1884, when it was completed by Thomas Archer, originally as a block of flats. There are officially 4 different addresses in the building:
1 & 2: Home to the Royal Horseguards Hotel, a large ***** hotel which 1st opened here in 1971, although it has gone through a number of different owners across the decades.
3 & 4: Home to the Farmers Club, apartments and various companies etc, fulfilling much of the original purpose of the building.
Whitehall Court is a familiar figure in views along the river Thames, situated directly South of Charing Cross station. It does however, have a companion, which is the final building on this road, with which it’s history is also closely linked. If you look at the 2nd picture, at the building on the left, you will see the main entrance to the MOD (Ministry of Defence), which had also occupied Whitehall Court during both World Wars. I mentioned earlier that the MOD was only formed in the 1960s, although the post of Minister of Defence already existed. This tied in with the history of the building, which was only built in 1959, despite the fact that it had been designed 45 years prior, in 1913, by a man named Vincent Harris (1876 – 1971, who also designed Manchester Central Library). It is also clad in Portland Stone, and you would be hard pressed to tell that it was built much later than the other buildings on the road.
We soon reached the Thames, and wandered along the area known as Embankment, until we reached Somerset House, further South along the river. The building has a long history, which began in 1776 when the original, much smaller, sections were designed by Sir William Chambers (1723 – 1796, Swedish Architect). It replaced a former royal residence from Tudor Times, known as Somerset Palace, after the Duke of Somerset, Edward Seymour (1500 – 1552) wh was essentially head of England whilst Edward VI (1537 – 1553) was a minor. Various historical events later lead to Seymours removal from power, and his house passed into the hands of the monarch for the following centuries.
Today the grand courtyard is used as an open air cinema for large scale screenings, and in December it is transformed into a large ice rink, whilst the building itself is home to various arts and cultural displays, and much more. You can find out more about the building and the events on going at the moment on their official website here.
Somerset House lies close to Waterloo Bridge, however if you were to head by foot towards the bridge, before you arrived you would encounter “Cleopatra’s Needle”. The Needle is in the form of a large Granite Egyptian Obelisk dating from around 1450 BC, which is 1 of a trio of Needles, along with 1 in New York, and 1 in Paris. Despite it’s name, it was neither designed or built for Cleopatra, rather Thutmose III. The London Needle was a gift to the United Kingdom in 1819 from Egypt, to commemorate the famous victories during the battles of the Nile and Alexandria, which occurred in 1798 and 1801 respectively. This marked the end of the Needles long journey around the world, from it’s original construction point in Heliopolis, Ancient Egypt, through Alexandria, and finally London.
On either side of the 70 ft Needle stands a Sphinx (not original) crafted out of metal, which guard the monument. The Southern Sphinx is full of small shrapnel holes, created when a German Bomb dropped by a Zeppelin exploded in the road in World War I.
From this area along the river not that from Cleopatra’s Needle, you get a stunning view looking both East and West along the River Thames, to get a glimpse of life in the other London Boroughs:
East (Picture 1)
1) On the North Bank, you can see the Skyscrapers of the ancient City of London, many of which were only completed in the late 2000’s.
2) Far in the distance a further set of Skyscrapers, those located around the financial district in Canary Wharf loom into view, including 1 Canada Square, topped by a distinctive pyramid, which is the former tallest building in London.
3) The South Bank contains a number of landmarks, across the boroughs of Lambeth & Southwark, most noticeably the Shard, the newest London tower which is now the tallest building in London, as well as Western Europe.
West (Picture 2)
1) Many bridges span the Thames along its length, and looking West along the river towards Westminster you can see Waterloo Bridge, completed in 1945, and named after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
2) Behind Waterloo Bridge you can just see the white suspension towers of the 2 pedestrian Golden Jubilee Bridges (2002 for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II), which sit either side of Hungerford Bridge (1864), a railway bridge carrying trains into the terminus station at London Charing Cross. The station building is visible on the right, towering above the other buildings that line the river here.
3) Over on the left, in the London Borough of Lambeth, sits the London Eye, a large ferris wheel built for the Millennium in 2000. The stunning views afforded from the top of the Eye are some of the most sought after in London, rivalled by only the Great Fire of London Monument, and the new Shard viewing gallery.
There is so much more left to see in the City of Westminster, so join us for the 2nd part of our journey around the city, as we discover the Royal Albert Hall, 221B Baker Street, and much more…