Houses of Parliament & Big Ben

Do you think you could make decisions that shape a whole nation?

A visit to the Houses of Parliament, and the very famous and immediately recognisable clock tower standing alongside it, is the place to go to see how this happens in the UK.

Located in the Palace of Westminster, the home of the UK’s government is one of London’s most recognisable landmarks and stands directly on the bank of the river Thames.


What Are The Houses of Parliament?

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The Houses of Parliament are the two houses that make up the UK parliamentary system, namely the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

This is called a bicameral parliament where each house keeps the other in check and this allows laws to be made, debates to be had, allocation of funding and taxes and ensure the workings of the government are monitored.

The Houses are based in the Palace of Westminster which is the recognisable building that people know and part of which is the very famous tower that people refer to as ‘Big Ben’.


A Brief History of The Houses of Parliament

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There have been buildings of significance on the site of the Palace of Westminster since the 8th century when there was a Saxon church in situ. This was known as the West Minster (or ‘West Monastery’) where the current name was derived.

In the 10th Century this was changed into a Benedictine Monastery and then in 1016 a Royal residence was built by the Danish, Norwegian and English King, Canute (Cnut).

In 1097, Westminster Hall was built by King William II, the son of William the Conqueror, which is one of the few early features that is still present today.

Over the next few hundred years there was a gradual move of financial aspects by the Monarchy from Winchester to Westminster with both the Treasury and the Exchequer moving sites. There was gradual development of the Palace by subsequent monarchs with the additions of other parts of the building. It was first recorded that Parliament was opened here in 1259 in the Painted Chamber (the King’s private apartment).

After a fire in the Palace of Whitehall, Henry VIII moved Parliament to it’s permanent home at the Palace of Westminster in 1512.

In 1605 the infamous Guy Fawkes tried, and failed, to blow up the Houses of Parliament in protest of laws against Catholicism. This became known as the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes was tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death in Old Palace Yard within the grounds of the Palace of Westminster.

1834 saw a fire at the Palace that destroyed the majority of the building - those parts that survived this were Westminster Hall, Undercroft Chapel, The Cloisters and Chapter House of St. Stephen’s and the Jewel Tower.

The rebuilding of the Palace following this devastation led to the building that we now see today. A competition was held to design a new building and this was won by Christopher Barry, helped by Augustus Pugin. The new building was built in a perpendicular Gothic style and the building work started in 1840 and finished in the 1870s.

During World War II the Palace was damaged in fourteen different air raids which caused considerable damage to the building, with the House of Commons chamber being completely destroyed in May 1941.

The Palace of Westminster today is classed as a Grade I listed building and also a UNESCO World Heritage site.


Houses of Parliament photo montage

Key Features

key features iconThe modern Palace of Westminster building is nearly 300metres long and covers 8 acres along with a surrounding 4 acres of gardens and lawns.

There are approximately 1100 rooms within the Palace, connected by around 4.8km of passageways.

Original Features

Since the fire in 1834 there are only a few of the medieval parts of the Palace still remaining. These are:

  • Westminster Hall - Built in 1097 by William II where, at the time, it was the largest hall in England (if not Europe) covering 1547 square metres and walls 2 metres thick. Due to the age of the hall there have been many repairs and alterations over the years.
  • Jewel Tower - Built in 1365 it was initially built to store the King’s jewels, gold and silver but was transferred over to be used by the House of Lords from 1621 to the mid-nineteenth century.
  • St Stephen’s Chapel and Cloisters - The building of the chapel started in 1292 taking over 70 years to be fully completed and it was in fact the second St Stephen’s chapel to sit on the site. In 1548 it became the home of the debating chamber for the House of Commons and after the fire in 1834 it was reconfigured by Charles Barry to form the now public entranceway into Parliament.
  • St Mary Undercroft Chapel - This chapel was built underneath St Stephen’s and is slightly below ground level. Originally this chapel was thought to be used for burials but over the years it has had a number of uses including the Speaker’s dining room. After the fire in 1834 it was re-imagined and decorated in a style resembling mosaics in St. Mark’s, Venice and is still a working chapel to this day.

After the fire in 1834 and the subsequent rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster, there are many other parts of the building worthy of note;

The Elizabeth Tower (aka Big Ben)

Big Ben clock towerThe tower at the north of the Palace is often referred to as Big Ben, and even previously as St Stephen’s tower before the official changing of it’s name in 2012. The tower is over 96 metres high with 334 steps to reach the top.

There are five bells in the tower with the largest being called Big Ben weighing in at 13.7 tonnes whilst the other four smaller bells range from 1.1 tonnes to 4 tonnes. Big Ben chimes on the hour, every hour and the four smaller quarter bells sound every 15 minutes.

The four clock dials on the faces of the tower are 7metres in diameter with the hour and minute hands being made out of different materials - hour hands from gun metal and the minute hands from copper.

House of Lords Chamber

This chamber is the most extravagantly decorated room within the Palace and is the place where the gathering of the three parts of Parliament - the Monarchy, the Lords and the Commons - takes place. The main colour scheme in the chamber is red and there are many decorative aspects including heavy brass gates at the entrance.

A peculiar feature is the presence of the Woolsack which is nowadays stuffed with wool from all over the Commonwealth and this is the seat of the Lord Speaker!

House of Commons Chamber

Much less lavish than the House of Lords with the colour scheme based on green. The benches where the Members sit are split into two sides, facing each other with the Speaker’s chair between the sets of benches at one end of the chamber under the public gallery.

Robing Room

Prior to the Queen entering the House of Lords, she dons her ceremonial state robes and the Imperial State Crown. Within the decorative room there is the 19th century Chair of State for her use should she wish to have a rest prior to entering the house!

Central Lobby

This is the crossroads of the house where members from both houses can meet. Above the lobby is Central Tower and the lobby itself forms a tall octagon with a tiled floor and arches depicting the patron saints of the four constituent countries of the UK.


Fun Facts About The Houses of Parliament

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  • The clock tower called Elizabeth Tower that houses Big Ben, was renamed to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. This tower sits at the east end of the building providing a nice balance with the Victoria tower at the west end. This is named after the only other British monarch to have also reigned for over 60 years.
  • The Elizabeth Tower is the height of 21 London buses on top of each other (this is 96 metres tall!)
  • HP sauce is a British tomato based brown sauce used to accompany food. The initials stand for Houses of Parliament Sauce as it was rumoured to have been served in the kitchens there in the early 20th century. The Palace building itself is shown on the front of the bottle.
  • The government in the UK is a constitutional Monarchy where the Crown (the current Monarch in the UK) shares powers with the government. For the current sovereign, Elizabeth II, this Royal Prerogative is very much a more ceremonial role. The Queen opens and closes parliament and approves Bills prior to them becoming law and also has a weekly meeting with the current British Prime Minister.
  • Voting within the Houses is done by the Members of Parliament physically going to different areas in the building - known as ‘dividing the house’. In the House of Commons these are called the ‘Aye’ and ‘No’ lobbies.
  • The clock mechanism in Elizabeth Tower can be ‘sped up’ or ‘slowed down’ by adding or removing pre-decimal pennies to a certain part of the clock’s mechanism.

Houses of Parliament Visitor Information

visitor infoThe Houses of Parliament is open to visitors and there are several different tour options available.

Audio Tours

  • These multimedia tours provide both audio and video footage to guide you through specific parts of the Houses of Parliament following the footsteps of the Queen at a State Opening of Parliament to the House of Lords Chamber, along with the House of Commons Chamber and Westminster Hall.
  • This tour allows you to go at your own pace and takes approximately 90 minutes.
  • There are 9 languages available.
  • A family version is available for children aged 7-12 years old.
  • This tour is available every Saturday and some weekdays when Parliament isn’t in session.

Guided Tour

  • This tour covers the same areas as the self guided audio tour however accompanied by a knowledgeable tour guide.
  • The tour takes approximately 90 minutes.
  • The guided tour is only available in English.
  • This tour is available every Saturday and some weekdays when Parliament isn’t in session.

Family Guided Tour

  • This tour is aimed at children aged 7-12 years old who are visiting with adults only.
  • It takes approximately 60mins.
  • It covers the House of Commons Chamber, House of Lords Chamber, Central Lobby and Westminster Hall.
  • This tour is available every Saturday and some weekdays when Parliament isn’t in session.

Tour Along With Afternoon Tea

  • Either an audio tour or guided tour to be taken on the same day as the Afternoon Tea.
  • Afternoon Tea in a riverside room in the House of Commons and consists of savoury and sweet treats along with tea or coffee (vegan and gluten-free options available).
  • Available most Saturdays and some weekdays when Parliament isn’t in session.

Pride at Parliament - LGBT History Tours

  • 75 minute guided tours showing the significant part that LGBT people have played in the UK parliament.
  • The tour takes in Westminster Hall, House of Commons Chamber and the House of Lords Chamber.
  • There are a few selected dates throughout the year for this tour.

Tactile Tours For The Blind And Partially Sighted

  • Talk with the team prior to the tour with time to handle specially made models and objects to touch.
  • The tour itself takes in Westminster Hall, Central Lobby, House of Commons Chamber and House of Lords Chamber.
  • Throughout the tour there are many objects and furniture to touch and handle.
  • This tour is free and is run approximately 10-12 times a year (normally at around 5pm on a Friday). It takes around 120 minutes.

Private Guided Tours

  • These custom Houses of Parliament tours allow up to 10 guests to visit and can be tailor-made to the requirements and interests of the group.
  • Tours are usually conducted in the morning at around 8.30am on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays and last for approximately 75 minutes.
  • The tours can be conducted in around 25 different languages.
  • Prices start from around £500 and are available to both UK residents and overseas visitors.

Royalty and Splendour Group Tours

  • This tour is a group experience which looks at Victorian art and decorative features within the House of Lords.
  • It follows the Monarch’s processional route for the State Opening of Parliament from the robing room through to the House of Lords Chamber and takes in the craftsmanship and artistry of the building (it also covers Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Hall and Central Lobby).
  • This tour takes approximately 75 minutes and prices start from around £500 for the group tour.
  • This tour is available every Saturday and some weekdays when Parliament isn’t in session.

Contemporary Portraiture Group Tours

  • Fully guided private group tour focussing on contemporary portraiture collections based in Portcullis House.
  • These collections record senior Parliamentarians in both paintings and photos.
  • The tour takes approximately 75 minutes, mainly on a Friday and prices start from around £150 per group.

Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower Tours

  • These tours are available to UK residents only and are free with tickets booked (well in advance) via Members of Parliament or a Member of the House of Commons.
  • It is a fully guided tour which takes you to the top of Elizabeth Tower to hear Big Ben chime on the hour. It also allows a visit behind the clock dials and into the mechanism room to see exactly how it all works!
  • Tours are Monday to Friday (not including Bank Holidays) at 9am, 11am and 2pm. An extra tour at 4pm is available between May and September. No tours run between 24th December and the 2nd January.
  • Due to the physical nature of the tour no children under 11 years of age are permitted to visit and it may not be suitable for those visitors less able or those with certain medical conditions. There are no lifts and everyone visiting must fill in a ‘Climber declaration and disclaimer’ form.
  • Visitors with hearing or visual impairments can be catered for but prior contact must be made to arrange this. Induction hearing loops can be used. No guide dogs can be taken up the tower but dogs can be left with staff on the ground.
  • The entrance to the tour is via the main entrance to Portcullis House.

How To Book Houses of Parliament Tours

To book tickets for the Houses of Parliament audio tours, Guided tours, Family guided tours, Tours with Afternoon Tea and the LGBT history tours call +44(0)20 7219 4114 or visit the ticket office Mon-Fri 10am-4pm (or 8.45am to 4.45pm on tour days) and Saturdays 8.45am to 4.45pm.

The ticket office is located in front of Portcullis House on Victoria Embankment, SW1A 2LW.

Tactile Tours, Private Guided tours, Royalty and Splendour group tours and Contemporary portraiture group tours can be booked via the above telephone number or by email on [email protected]

Disabled Provision and Access to the Houses of Parliament

  • An access video can be seen online which shows how to get around - this is around 15 minutes long. There are two versions, one is subtitled and the other shows British Sign language.
  • The nearest car park is Q-Park Westminster which does not have specific disabled parking bays however there are Blue badge bays nearby. These can be found detailed at www.westminster.gov.uk.
  • The House of Commons and the House of Lords both have induction loop systems for hearing impaired visitors.
  • Screen based versions of the audio guide are available and British Sign Language interpreters can be arranged (notice must be given).
  • Wheelchairs may be borrowed but must be booked in advance (call +44(0)207 219 4114) but visitors must bring someone who is able to escort them as staff are not able to provide this service.
  • All tours are accessible for wheelchairs. For motorised chairs that may be larger, there are alternative routes and some viewing points available.
  • Assistance dogs may attend with visitors and facilities are available for the dogs.
  • Accessible toilets are available near to the cafe at Westminster Hall.

Debates And Question Time Within The House

The Houses of Parliament is the working seat of government in the United Kingdom, and it is possible for visitors to view certain events live, in person.

Attending Debates

  • Both UK residents and overseas visitors can watch debates in both Houses from the public galleries.
  • These can be seen when open Monday to Thursday (and occasionally Fridays) but actual times and dates can differ throughout the week for each House.
  • For general debates, tickets are not required and visitors are able to queue up for access (there is often quite a queue!) via the Cromwell Green entrance.

Prime Minister’s Question Time

  • This is a limited amount ticketed event, every Wednesday at 12 noon when Parliament is in session.
  • Members of the House of Commons pose questions to the Prime Minister for half an hour - the Speaker of the House will call Members to ask their question.
  • It is free and open only to UK residents who can request tickets from their Member of Parliament or from a Member of the House of Lords.
  • If the full allocation of tickets is not taken then people without tickets and overseas visitors may queue to attend but no entry is guaranteed.

Ministerial Question Time

  • Both chambers start their Monday-Thursday sessions with ministerial question time where questions are posed to government ministers. This is normally for around 1hour in the House of Commons and 30 minutes in the House of Lords.
  • This is open for both UK residents and overseas visitors and is free, however UK residents can get advance tickets from their Member of Parliament or a Member of the House of Lords whilst overseas visitors would have to queue for availability to attend.

General visiting information

  • Airport-style security must be passed upon entry to the Palace of Westminster.
  • Jubilee cafe is located next to Westminster Hall and provides light meals and hot and cold beverages.
  • There are a number of toilets located around the site including at Westminster Hall.
  • The official Houses of Parliament gift shop is located out of the main building at 12, Bridge Street.

Location

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The Houses of Parliament are situated on the north bank (where Westminster bridge connects to the north shore) of the River Thames located in the City of Westminster in central London, UK.

Westminster Abbey is to the west of the House while St Thomas’ hospital sits across the river to the east. Abingdon Street runs along the west side of the buildings and Westminster Bridge road to the north.

How To Get There

The Houses of Parliament can be accessed in a number of ways due to its central location.

By Boat - Westminster Pier on Victoria Embankment is only a 5 minute walk away which allows access to a number of boat excursion companies that can take you along the River Thames.

By Tube - The nearest Underground Tube station is Westminster (covering the Jubilee, District and Circle lines) which is only a 3 minute walk away. Other nearby stations are St James’ Park (8 minutes - District and Circle lines) and Embankment (12 minutes - Circle, District, Northern and Bakerloo lines).

By Train - The nearest mainline overland train stations are Charing Cross (15minutes), Waterloo (16 minutes) and Victoria (20minutes) which take you out of the City and to many parts of the UK.

By Bus - A variety of bus lines pass close to the palace - 3, 11, 12, 24, 53, 87, 88, 148, 159, 211 and 453.. A number of tour bus operators also have stops close to the palace.

By Car - Driving in central London is not recommended due to lack of, and price of, parking and also due to the congestion charge which applies to vehicles entering this central zone. However if necessary to drive, the nearest car park to the Houses of Parliament is Q-Park Westminster located off Great College Street in Abingdon Street Gardens (SW1P 3RX).


Where To Stay

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Due to the location of the Houses of Parliament there are numerous options for accommodation in the central London vicinity. From hostels and budget hotel options all the way through to five star luxury, there are many places to stay.


Other Things To Do Nearby

things to do near the Houses of Parliament

Central London, by it’s nature as a capital city, has many attractions to see and things to do. Just a few of the many options available in the vicinity of the Houses of Parliament are:


Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ icon

What are the two Houses of Parliament in the UK?

The two houses of the UK Houses of Parliament are the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Who owns the Houses of Parliament?

There seems to be some confusion as to who exactly owns the Houses of Parliament but essentially the land that the Palace of Westminster is on (the ‘freehold’) belongs to the Crown (i.e. the Queen) but she gave control, use and occupation of the buildings to the Houses of Parliament themselves in 1965.

Can you go into the Houses of Parliament?

Yes, you are able to go into the Houses of Parliament. There are a number of different tours available from individual audio tours to private guided tours. Also visitors are able to see debates and questions to ministers within the chambers themselves when Parliament is in session.

What happens if you die in the Houses of Parliament?

The question regarding dying in Parliament stems from an idea that anyone who dies within a royal palace (in this case the Palace of Westminster) would be entitled to a State Funeral. This however is not true - there have been at least four deaths within the palace grounds (including Guy Fawkes) and none of these people have been granted a state funeral.

How old are the Houses of Parliament?

The Houses of Parliament as individual Houses of representatives of Parliament were formed in the 14th century, over 700 hundred years ago. Some form of building (from a church to a Royal residence to Parliament’s home) has been on the site for over 900 hundred years however the current houses were moved to the Palace of Westminster as their permanent home in 1512.

Why is the Queen not allowed in the House of Commons?

The Queen is not permitted to enter the House of Commons and in fact no Monarch has entered there since 1642. This is to illustrate and cement the independence of Parliament from the Crown and when the Queen opens Parliament, she gives her speech from the House of Lords and sends for the representatives from the House of Commons to come and listen.

Why is Big Ben called Big Ben?

There is thought that the bell called Big Ben was nick-named as such in the 19th century after a Welsh civil engineer Sir Benjamin Hall. Sir Hall was the Commissioner of Works overseeing the renovation of the Houses of Parliament and the installation of the bell itself. The alternative theory is that the bell is named after Benjamin Caunt who was a 19th century heavyweight bare-knuckle boxing champion whose nickname was ‘Big Ben’.

How many rooms are in the Houses of Parliament?

There are over 1100 rooms contained within the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament reside.

How many times does Big Ben chime a day?

The bell named Big Ben chimes on the hour, every hour so therefore 24 times a day. There are four smaller quarter bells within the tower that sound every 15 minutes.

How loud is Big Ben?

The bell Big Ben is very loud indeed! It has been measured at 118 decibels (to compare, jet planes taking off register at 120 decibels) and can cause damage to hearing.

How tall is Big Ben?

The bell of Big Ben is 2.29m tall with a diameter of 2.74m. However the name Big Ben is also sometimes used to refer to the clock tower (The Elizabeth Tower) and this is 96 metres tall.

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