Sight ★★★


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C-SPAN with a British accent

Big Ben, Westminster, and sitting in on a session of British Parliament

British Parliament meets inside a honey-hued complex of be-spired 1840 buildings designed by Sir Charles Barry in a neo-Gothic idiom that, more than most, sticks pretty faithfully to the old Perpendicular period's style. (Bit-o-trivia: Sr. Barry's next project was rebuilding Highclere Castle, better known to anglophiles as TV's "Downton Abbey")

The most famous bit of this gargantuan confectionery of a building is the 336-foot Victoria Tower, home to the world’s most famous timepiece (still wound by hand), which is often (though incorrectly) referred to by the name of its chime’s biggest bell, the 13.5-ton Big Ben.

Big Ben

The famous clock started ticking in on May 31, 1859 and continues to provide the time to more Londoners than does GMT, its 4.2-meter copper minute hands traveling the equivalent of 190km per year (always in a circle, though); the hours hands are 2.74 meters long and are made of gun metal.

Watching British Parliament in session

If you thought the snide British hosts on reality shows were nasty, you ain't seen nothing like the kind of bile, outlandish insults, and centuries-long grudge matches that play out daily in sessions at British Parliament.

It's free to come watch these right proper MPs (Members of Parliament) scream obscenities and question each other's parentage as they discuss the issues of the day. Quite entertaining. C-SPAN should probably train a camera on these guys (it'd be a heck of a lot more fun than the yawn-fests our U.S. Congressmen conduct).

Members of the opposing parties (left-wing Labour and right-wing Conservative) sit facing one another in two long sections of fancy, bleacher-style seats—and there's a damned good reason these bleachers were arranged so as two be two swords' lengths apart.

Open Hours
House of Commons
Mon–Tues 2:30-10:30pm
Wed 11:30am-7:30pm
Thurs 10:30am-6.30pm
Fri 9:30am-3pm

Westminster Hall
Tues–Wed 9:30-11.30am & 2-4:30pm Thurs 2:30-5:30pm

House of Lords
Mon-Tues 2:30-10pm
Wed 3pm-10pm
Thurs 11am-7:30pm
Fri 10am-close of business

Parliament is in session from mid-October through late July. The insanely nutball quotient of inbred aristocrats was dealt a severe blow a few years ago when the government finally decided to thin the ranks of the hereditary House of Lords (the upper house of Britain's Parliament, like the U.S. Senate), so the show at the House of Lords isn't nearly as much popcorn-crunching fun as the verbal brawl that often takes place in the House of Commons. MPs also hold debates outside their main chamber in Westminster Hall.

Admission to all is free, hours are in the box on the right, and the line forms at the St. Stephen's entrance. (When Parliament is not in session, you can tour the buildings, but you must book ahead and it costs £12.)

Bridge Street and Parliament Square
Tube: Westminster
tel. 0870 906 3773
www.parliament.uk

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