Accessible tour around the Houses of Parliament

Back in March we ran a competition to allow one reader to take a tour around the Houses of Parliament in London. Here, winner Liz Sheppard, tells us all about the tour and the accessibility.

Greetings readers, my name is Liz and I’m a wheelchair user most of the time. My sister Rebecca and I were lucky enough to go on a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament for Disability Horizons. Let me tell you all about it…

Liz Sheppard outside the Houses of ParliamentWe’d already picked up our tickets from the box office across the road (there is step free access to the box office round the side of its building and there are lots of benches in the vicinity) and so we prepared ourselves for the sadly necessary airport style security check. We had been warned that on really busy days, security could take up to half an hour. But the security staff were courteous and helpful and we were through in 10 minutes.

We then found ourselves in Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving part of the building, now home to the shop, information desk and starting point for the tours.

At the appointed hour (tickets are timed, so if it’s busy it’s unlikely they will let you in sooner) we gathered for the start of our tour; there are staff around who can direct you to the right place. Tour groups consist of around 25 people and, although timings are staggered, there are several tours going on at once.

There are some stairs leading away from Westminster Hall to the rest of the building. Our tour guide Marc explained that my sister and I would need to take a different route to avoid the stairs. He assured us that we wouldn’t miss anything, and would in fact see other parts of the building not included in the official tour. Accompanied by a member of staff, we proceeded via a lift to where our group was waiting for us.

Our tour was a 90 (ish) minute whistle-stop chronological tour of the Queen’s day when officiating at the State Opening of Parliament. Beginning in the splendor of the Norman Porch and the Robing Room, we then proceeded through the Royal Gallery with its depictions of the British victories at Trafalgar and Waterloo.

I have a soft spot for the next room on the tour, the Prince’s Chamber, with its portraits of the men and women of both the English and Scottish branches of the Tudor dynasty, including all 6 of Henry VIII‘s unfortunate wives.

The House of Lords Chamber, with that famous red seating, is much smaller than it looks on TV and doesn’t accommodate all of the members at once. The size and capacity is much the same with the House of Commons Chamber, too. It’s worth knowing that you can’t sit down in either chamber and, although not part of the tour, if want to watch a debate at another time, there is lift access to the public galleries. Look out for the dent on the door of the House of Commons Chamber caused by Black Rod knocking to invite MPs for the Queen’s speech.

Due to narrowness of the walkways in both the House of Commons Chamber and the House of Lords Chamber, my sister and I took a different route to the group into both chambers. We were accompanied by staff who explained to both of us the route we would take and why.

Accessible Parliament tour Disability HorizonsThe Central Lobby is a particularly impressive space – you‘ve probably seen it on the news as journalists broadcast from here – with ornate archways leading off to different areas of the building. Statues of kings and queens line the arches and the tiled floor contains symbols of each of the four nations.

Back in Westminster Hall, having gone on a circulatory route, our tour concluded with an explanation of the plaques in the floor commemorating the important events that have taken place there.

Marc, our tour guide extraordinaire, made sure all the group could see and hear as much as possible and was accommodating to all those with additional needs (not just me). Also, despite large numbers of people, the crowds are well managed and not overwhelming.

Such a great way to spend an afternoon. Thanks to all at Disability Horizons and to Ian Lacey (@visitparliament on Twitter) for facilitation.

Top tips for enjoying your tour

1. There are few opportunities to sit down during the tour. If you find walking difficult, you might want to consider borrowing one of their wheelchairs, which you can book in advance. You won’t miss anything, in fact you get to see more with the alternative routes.

2. Photography is not allowed inside (other than in Westminster Hall) and you don’t get time to linger to look at or, if so inclined, draw things.  The neo-gothic design is obviously stunning throughout so it’s worth getting a guide book which contains some great photos of the interiors, of decorative details, and has lots of information not included on the tour.

3. We checked out the cafe and toilets, situated off Westminster Hall, which are accessible via a small lift. As this lift only accommodates one wheelchair or buggy at a time, queuing is possible  – worth knowing if it’s likely you might need either in a hurry. The website says there are other accessible toilets in the building but, as far as I can tell, the ones by the cafe seem to be the most convenient for the tour.

4. The disability access page on the Houses of Parliament website was super helpful.

By Liz Sheppard

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