When I am asked for travel tips one of the first to come out of my mouth is: Talk to strangers! It goes against practically every grain in my body to do so as I am an introvert by nature; luckily I have been blessed with a husband who can talk to and find common ground with anyone, anywhere.
While we have had many great experiences begin by simply asking a question the most amazing, by far, happened in May 2003 outside Parliament in London.
It was the third day of our six day trip. We were on our way to Westminster Abbey. I'm not sure it had actually registered to me that Parliament was across the street from our destination. Of course the first thing I saw as we exited the tube was the tower that houses “Big Ben”. Photos truly do no justice to the magnificence of this tower.
As we wandered past the Parliament building toward our destination Doug stopped to snap a photo of two Bobbies who seemed to be enjoying their assignment of guarding the entrance to the car park. As they talked and laughed together Doug snapped a few photos. They noticed and invited me behind the gates for a photo op.
After taking this photo Doug and I chatted with Mike and Gary. We joked that their job looked easy as very few cars were entering or exiting. They explained to us that Parliament was not in session so very few people were actually in the building.
(A little FYI for visiting Parliament in London: Tours are only available to overseas visitors during the Summer Opening– August thru October- and then only with a paid for ticket and planned in advance. )
We spoke with Mike and Gary about many things and they told incredible tales about their job including amusing anecdotes about Royal appearances. About 20 minutes into our conversation Mike asked what our itinerary included for that day. We replied that we planned to see Westminster Abbey. He said, “The queue is always quite long there and it's time for my break. Would you like a tour of Parliament?”
We didn't have to be asked twice. I was in a bit of a daze as Mike led us into Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace and the only part to survive the great fire in October 1834.
Mike led us through Westminster Hall showing us where the Queen Mother and others had laid in state, pointing out historical markers and telling us how hundreds of years old tennis balls were found in the hammerbeam ceiling in the 1920s.
Mike was understandably reverent when he showed us the large stained glass window at the end of Westminster Hall known as St. Stephen's Porch. The window is a tribute to members and staff of both houses of Parliament who lost their lives in World War II. Directly below this is the Recording Angel memorial dedicated to Peers, MPs, officers and their sons who died in World War I.
Then we entered the Parliament building. No photos were allowed, so I only have the memories of that tour. Mike took us through every room, sharing history and stories:
- the House of Commons where the Queen is not allowed to enter. He showed us the indent on the door where “Black Rod” knocks three times to summon the Commoners from the chamber to hear her state opening speech. He also showed us the “aye” and “nay” lobbies and explained the voting process.
- the House of Lords where we noticed the much more luxurious seating. In the upper seating gallery are low curtains; these were put in when mini-skirts became fashionable (it seems some ladies weren't so modest). I believe an original Magna Carta is in this area, though I could be remembering incorrectly.
- the Royal Gallery where portraits of Kings and Queens line the walls and a copy of Charles I original death warrant is displayed.
- the Robing Room which had the first flushing toilet (designed by Thomas Crapper) and was possibly the most golden room I had even seen.
- the Central Lobby which has a public post office.
- and more hallways, aisles and back rooms with stories that are too long to be shared in such a short space.
This amazing tour, one that few people (let alone Americans) receive, was followed by tea in one of the restaurants in the Parliament building. It was in the lower depths of the building that we met a man by the name of John Doe (I kid you not) who was an American Civil War buff and visited the US a couple times a year to take part in reenactments. He and Doug got on quite well.
We never did make it inside Westminster Abbey but the personal tour we received was more memorable, by far. And it only came about because we talked to strangers.