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The Houses of Parliament or officially The Palace of Westminster is the seat of the British Government. Located on the north bank of the River Thames in the borough of Westminster, the building is home to the House of Commons, the directly elected legislator, and the House of Lords, the majority of which have been appointed as life members. The building contains over 1,000 rooms and is the site of a number of historic ceremonies including the State Opening of Parliament. The building itself is one of London’s most iconic images.

Houses of Parliament

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In the middle of the 11th century, the then King of England, Edward the Confessor, moved his court to the Palace of Westminster In 1265 a parliament was established consisting of two houses, the Lords, and the Commons. The Lords met at the palace, but the Commons had no permanent home. In 1530 King Henry VIII moved his court to Whitehall Palace, but the Lords remained in Westminster. Later in 1547 the House of Commons also established a permanent home in the Palace of Westminster, so establishing it as the seat of government, and it has stayed so ever since. In 1834 a fire all but destroyed The Palace of Westminster leaving only the Jewel Tower, the crypt and cloister of St Stephens and Westminster Hall standing. A competition was held to find a design for a new building, which was won by the architect sir Charles Barry and his right hand man Augustus Welby Pugin which included incorporating the remaining structures that had survived the fire. Completed in 1870, What they created is the neo Gothic building we can see today.

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On one end stands the tallest part of the building at 98 metres, the Victoria Tower. Named after Queen Victoria, it contains the records of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, some dating as far back as 1497. At the other end of the building, standing 2 metres shorter than the Victoria Tower is the clock tower which is now named The Elizabeth Tower in honour of Queen Elizabeth II. This tower is often mistakenly referred to a Big Ben. In fact Big Ben is not the tower or the clock, but in fact the name given to the bell that rings out when the clock chimes. Even then this is not completely accurate, as the official name of the bell is the Great Bell. As for the clock itself, it is over 150 years old and is the largest four faced clock in the world. The third and shortest tower standing at 91 metres is located in the middle of the building above the Central Lobby and is simply known as the Central Tower. The Central Lobby is where constituents can arrange to meet their Member of Parliament to try and persuade them to support their particular cause, hence the term “to lobby”.

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The chamber where the House of Commons sit was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1950 in the same neo Gothic style by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The Commons Chamber with its green leather benches is somewhat plainer than the more lavishly decorated Lords Chamber with its red leather seats and gold decorative features.

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Guided tours of the Houses of Parliament are available during the summer recess when parliament is not sitting. The tour includes both the Commons and Lords chambers, Westminster Hall, the Royal Gallery, and the Robing Room, which is used by the Sovereign for the State Opening of Parliament. Residents of the United Kingdom can also book a tour of the Elizabeth Tower. As this is accessed via a spiral staircase consisting of 334 steps, it is not advised for those with walking difficulties.