Buckingham Palace. Houses of Parliament. Westminster Abbey. Trafalgar Square.
These names are synonymous with visiting London. No trip would be complete without at least witnessing the Changing of the Guard, or trying to spot if the Queen is in residence and taking tea on her balcony.
Every corner of a Westminstertour will evoke images and emotions around the rich history of this world-famous city, and you would be wise to do a bit of research and reading beforehand if you are someone who likes to deep dive into your chosen destination. You may think you know Westminster, but there’s a lot more to it than you think.
The Churchill War Rooms, for example, is a fascinating underground warren of rooms that housed the government during the second world war. Located beneath the treasury building on the Whitehall area of Westminster, its historical significance ensured its preservation and restoration. Since 2003, the rooms used by Churchill and his wife as their private accommodation was restored (at a cost of £7.5 million) and added to the overall tour, giving up close and personal flavour to the visit.
The juxtaposition of the War Rooms with the current seat of power at 10 Downing Street spins you through 85 years of history. The infamous black door has been beamed into our front rooms every day since TVs were first invented. But who has the key? Have you ever seen the incumbent Prime Minister scrabbling about their pocket after returning home late from a meeting? In truth, there is no key, and the door can only be opened from the inside.
Just on the inside of the front door is a large black chair that was previously used by the nightwatchman. Underneath the chair is a drawer which used to be filled with hot coals, to help the watchman keep warm through chilly nights. From this comes the phrase ‘in the hot seat’.
Let’s turn our attention away from these warm seats of power and continue our Westminster tour towards the influence of royalty on the area.
Constructed in 1703, Buckingham Palace boasts 775 rooms – this includes 19 state rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms. The most famous part of the palace is the balcony, where the Royal Family congregate during special occasions to greet the crowds.
There is no doubt that the iconic red uniform of the Queen’s Guard is one of the most recognized, photographed, and evocative of sights. Everyone from Joey on Friends to Paddington Bear have tried (and failed) to distract the impassive, rigid demeanour of the soldiers. But no matter what you may have seen on screen, it doesn’t match the pomp, pageantry and sheer emotion of watching the actual Changing of the Guard ‘in the flesh’. The dedication, silent dignity and discipline demonstrated by the Queen’s Guards is a sight that needs to be seen (particularly when you consider they are not allowed toilet breaks).
No Westminster tour would be complete without a visit to the Abbey – the final resting place of 17 monarchs. There are more than 3500 bodies buried within the Abbey walls, including Henry V and Elizabeth I, Edward the Confessor, Charles Dickens and Sir Issac Newton. Poet Ben Johnson had the honour being buried in the Abbey, but was so poor he could only afford two square feet – so they buried him upright!
The Abbey has also hosted 17 royal weddings, the most recent being the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Yet even Kate had to circumvent the tomb of the Unknown Warrior as she walked down the aisle.