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Field Trip to Parliament

Monday morning, bleary eyed, I gazed out my front window waiting for a taxi that didn’t come. The night before, I had called and booked a taxi for 7:30 am the next morning. I was sure of it. I had taken special care to enunciate and speak loudly, as is my habit since moving to the UK, phone conversations can be especially confusing. But where were they? My hair was coiffed, my makeup applied, I had hastily downed some yogurt and antacids (nervous stomach) all I was missing was my transportation.

After a quick check of my email and texts, I discovered this, “Thank you for booking with Dial A Cab. PickupDate/Time: 18/03/2019 19:30.” Curse my accent and the 24 hour clock! I quickly called and cancelled this taxi, ordered another, and arrived at my destination 15 minutes later than planned.

In February, a letter arrived addressed to me, from my local Member of Parliament and the House of Commons in London, inviting me to attend a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. I am sure that most people tossed this letter into their recycling bin, but I was intrigued. After checking dates and childcare with my partner, I decided to put my name in and hope that I was chosen, as spaces were allocated by ballot. I was so pleased when my name was selected and I eagerly looked forward to a day in London with what I assumed would be a bus full of retired Cheltonians.

Flash forward to Monday, March 18, nearly 8:00 am. I was searching for a bus full of my elderly future friends. An email sent out the Friday previous, had detailed that we were to look for a red Marchants bus and that a representative of our local MP would be there to take our names. I was now 15 minutes later than I had planned to be boarding the bus thanks to my taxi mishap, which was really nothing compared to my bus/taxi mishap in October 2017 at 4:00 am on my way to Paris. I don’t have the best luck with these things but it doesn’t discourage me and just keep bumbling along and requiring antacids.

Royal Well Bus Station in Cheltenham is a beautiful tranquil spot full of stressed people. It is framed by 18 Georgian terraced houses built in 1806. Royal Crescent was home to the Duke of Gloucester and visited by Princess Victoria. In the center of the station there are lovely trees, green space, and benches. I’ve never enjoyed myself at this station, as I am usually in a cold sweat trying to make sure I’m on the correct bus, or trying to find parking as I pick up a visitor. Our last visitor nearly lost her purse (AND PASSPORT) in this spot, so it’s beauty is quite lost on me.

There was only one red Marchants bus in the vicinity. I hopped on. It was NOT my bus. It was a private hire requiring a badge that I don’t have. No doubt some of my readers know where this bus would be headed. The only other bus in the crescent was a rather dilapidated looking grey coach. A smartly dressed man with white hair and a beard and a friendly face was chatting happily nearby. He was holding a clipboard, I approached him and stood awkwardly close whilst he visited for five more minutes. At which point, he took my name, and I was the last person on the bus.

We left promptly at 8:05 am, even though the email and previous schedules had stated 8:15 am as our departure time. The white haired gentleman welcomed us all using the bus sound system and said that we were leaving five people behind, but he thought that if they were not there yet, they were not planning on attending. I thought they were probably on their way to the bus station expecting to board a red Marchant’s bus at 8:15 am. We then each received a new timetable for the day. First item, “08:00 Coach departs from Royal Well.” I thought about how helpful it was to receive this timely information, as we pulled out into traffic.

The timetable indicated that the coach would arrive at Victoria Gardens, Westminster, at 11:00 am. However, the bus driver “kindly” offered to stop at a services just outside of London. It was clearly evident that the gentleman in charge of the tour was not pleased about this as he told us repeatedly that we would only have 15 minutes and that all our coffee or tea must be purchased in a takeaway cup. After sprinting to the toilet and to Starbucks we were off to London.

I quickly noticed that I was the only person on the bus without a friend or partner to chat to. There were a lot of couples, who seemed to be enjoying their day out together. I think at this point in my life I have accepted that a full day or night out with my partner will never be in the cards. We take turns and spend time together at home because we have yet to find anyone magical enough to be able to watch our children.

Luckily for me, a person somewhat allergic to small talk with strangers, I had an empty seat beside me. As I am prone to motion sickness, I definitely cannot read in a moving vehicle. I looked out the window as we travelled, and I fell asleep once or twice… or more. Did I snore? I have no idea.

The scenery in the cotswolds is idyllic. Rolling green hills, sheep, charming villages (I refuse to use the term chocolate-box village because I have yet to find any town in England tedious or uninspiring- perhaps I need 10 more years for that type of cynicism to creep into my lexicon). As you near London, the cotswolds stone and neat hedgerows are replaced with deteriorating buildings, junk yards, graffiti, and TRAFFIC. That’s not to say that it isn’t interesting. London is endlessly fascinating, it’s outskirts are indicative of any massive city.

I often think of the scene from the film Wonder Woman, when she is seeing London for the first time. 

“Welcome to jolly old London!”

“It’s hideous.”

“Yeah, it’s not for everybody.”

To be fair London is not even close to hideous, but that doesn’t stop me from laughing at this quote every time I hear it!

As Rita Ora, or Riter Ora- as the locals say, could be barely heard singing through the poor reception and low volume of the coach radio, we pulled into London and were immediately greeted with the sight of the Grenfell Tower, in Rita Ora’s childhood neighbourhood. It’s quite a prominent building, to see it engulfed in flames must have been absolutely horrific. It now bears a large banner, “Grenfell, Forever in our Hearts,” to honour the 72 people who lost their lives in the senseless tragedy of 2017.

We drove through Earl’s Court, Kensington, Chelsea, and finally Westminster. This only took nearly an hour. London traffic is no joke. The coach parked directly in front of security and we were ushered through quite quickly to make up for lost time. Security at the Palace of Westminster is airport style. No liquids, scanners for bags and coats, metal detectors, and if you are lucky, a full pat down. I was lucky. I usually am because my bra sets of metal detectors. It’s like a womanly superpower.

One of the security staff called me back as I was receiving my visitor’s pass. “Is that you?” he asked, pointing to my tattoo. I told him that it was my sisters and me. He said, “Ah! It looks just like you! It’s beautiful!” This is when I decided to move to Westminster permanently. Who needs to go back to Canada where my grandparents and aunties actually tell me that my tattoo is ugly. I suppose I should be grateful that they also don’t say that it looks just like me.

Our tour started right away, we divided into two groups. I was in the first group, and I knew we had the better tour guide when the other group passed us part way through. He was extremely knowledgeable and charmingly drole. We started in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the palace. This is where important dignitaries would speak as it is large enough to accommodate a lot of people. Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama have both given addresses in this location. Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother both lied-in-state here. Thousands of years ago this hall was home to coronations of monarchs and great banquets.

The Palace of Westminster was the primary residence for the kings of England until a terrible fire in 1512. After that, it became home of the Parliament of England, and has been ever since. It’s lovely to visit, but you are not allowed to take any photos or sit anywhere. Keeping any aspect of enjoyment to the minimum is also appreciated.

As the Canadian parliamentary system is based on the English parliament, much of the terms, concepts, and methods discussed were already familiar to me. Canada employs an appointed Senate and an elected House of Commons. The English system is composed of an appointed House of Lords and an elected House of Commons. Both the British system and the Canadian system are overseen by the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. In Canada, the Governor General is her representative. Both systems must have a mace in place as a representative of the Queen before business can begin.

Our tour of Westminster first brought us to the Royal Staircase leading from the Norman Porch to the House of Lords. This is the route the Queen does take and must take during the state opening of parliament. She then gives a speech to both houses in the House of Lords. The House of Lords is an exceedingly elaborate room with a majestic golden throne. The main colour of the room is red. To contrast, the House of Commons is less ornate and the main colour is green. I believe the theme of British Parliament is “have yourself a parliamentary democratic Christmas.”

The houses are connected by a beautiful central lobby. A place for all parties, houses, and lobbyists to meet and discuss (argue). The Central Lobby is housed in the distinctive central tower. The room itself is a vaulted and in a grand octagonal shape, with statues of prime ministers and monarchs, intricate tile work, and outdated yet amazing mail systems.

There is much pomp and circumstance in the British parliamentary system. My favourite is the Black Rod, presently Sarah Clarke, who must walk with the mace to the House of Commons and invite them to join the House of Lords for the Queen’s address at the state opening of parliament. The House of Commons must then slam the door in her face to signify that the commons are independent of the sovereign. Following the door slamming, the Black Rod must knock three times with the mace in a certain spot on the door (as it is becoming damaged), at which point the House of Commons will follow her to the House of Lords for the Queen’s speech. No one is allowed to have hurt feelings over the door slamming incident.

On our tour we stood on the spot where the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was discovered. As Guy Fawkes was found guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder only hours before the state opening of parliament was to begin and the king was to arrive, there are now elaborate methods and checks carried out in the days preceding any state opening of parliament. Also, there are numerous trap doors, false walls, and secret passageways built into the Palace of Westminster that can be used should a monarch or dignitary ever need to be removed quickly from a proceeding.

After the wonderful guided tour, we were given 45 minutes to explore and eat lunch. I opted to explore first, as I always do. It was very strange to be on the other side of security when walking around the palace yard. Taking selfies whilst armed guards watched was also strange. Unfortunately, the Elizabeth tower housing Big Ben, is being repaired at the moment (and for years to come if you look at the projected timeline), so it’s not as pretty as it should be. Protesters were actively protesting Brexit the entire time we were there. My favourite chant, “Grandmum’s against Brexit! This will only end in tears!” I wanted to give them a high-five or a hug, but I couldn’t because there were guards with automatic weapons between us.

By the time I got to the cafeteria, there was not much food left nor anywhere to sit. I asked a stranger if I could sit with her to eat my sandwich, I only ask strangers for help in truely desperate circumstances. She said that she was waiting for someone, then the people at the table beside her told me they were done and I could sit there. So I sat next to this woman waiting for her friend and read my book and ate my sandwich while she checked her phone. Twenty minutes later I was done and gone and her friend still had not arrived. I hope that she is not still there waiting. I also hope that her friend is Theresa May.

Following lunch, we were ushered into a beautiful (of course) meeting room and treated to a talk with questions from our local MP. I was not sure if I should put his name here or not. I think since I disliked a lot of what he said, I will keep it out. I acknowledge that being a politician would be a difficult profession, perhaps it is a job that attracts a type of person that I don’t really understand. There is a skill, a clever skill, in which you can engage with people and answer their questions and even if you disagree, your diplomatic word choices make it feel like we all might be on the same page. It’s absolutely fascinating and terrifying to watch. But honestly, he was very intelligent and charming and I did learn a lot about my local area.

The overall feeling in Westminster on Monday was tense. Just today, Brexit has been further delayed, so the saga is ongoing with no clear ending. The protests whipped up into a frenzy whilst we were inside listening to our MP, by the time we had taken a group photo, toilet break, and announced that we would head back to the coach, it was no longer safe or possible for the coach to be in front of the building. The entire road had been blocked due to the protestors. We walked about four blocks to get to our bus. I did not mind at all. I hung back from the group, snapping a few pictures and enjoying the view of the Thames. I had to run a couple of times to catch up to my white haired tour friends.

This was the first time that I didn’t want to leave London. To be fair, last time I was in London I was battling the stomach flu but pretending that I was fine so that I could go to the Lion King and spend time with one of my best friends. This was also the first time that I saw sunshine in London! It was a wonderful day. Don’t worry, the sunshine didn’t last too long lest I became frightened and forget where I was.

One 15 minute sprint to a Starbucks services stop in Oxford, hours of traffic with more scratchy Rita Ora, and one definitely snorry nap later, we were back in Cheltenham. I walked to a taxi spot, there were no taxis to be found.

Monday evening, bleary eyed, I watched the people walking along in Montpellier, Cheltenham, and waited for a taxi that didn’t come. I blame race week, all the local taxi drivers were no doubt too exhausted from their 16 hour or more work days last week.  I had to borrow cash from my children’s piggy banks for cab money because the ATMs were out of cash on the weekend- I blame race week. I did eventually get home, despite race week’s lingering ill effects.

My partner made me chicken parmigiana and my boys were quick with the hugs. Laundry had been done and effort had been made to tidy up after our tornado children. We had planned on filing our taxes that night but were too exhausted- I blame Brexit. It’s nice to have something to blame and someone to love. Thank you to all our politicians for being that something.  

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