Report on CLESO’s visit to the Palace of Westminster on 6/11/2010 by David Sutton

The Palace of WestminsterOn a very fresh Saturday afternoon a group of 28 CLESO members homed into the seat of power in our land, our Houses of Parliament. As it was November 6th we were all relieved to see it was unscathed and any latter-day Guy Fawkes had not had his way! As we queued up to get in and chatted with the security staff we were astonished (and pleasantly assured) to find CLESO was expected. We were ushered through the airport-style security, issued with our identity passes and entered Westminster Hall. Here we were met by a genial Simon Over who was our host for the afternoon. Simon is currently Musical Director of the Southbank Sinfonia and conductor of the choirs attached to the Palace of Westminster, together with many other duties undertaken by a professional musician of his calibre which take him worldwide. Simon at one point in his career was on the music staff of Westminster Abbey.

Our visit started in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft. The chapel is highly decorated in the Gothic style by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, when the new palace was erected following the disastrous fire in 1834. The chapel has however been in existence since the late 13th century. The organ, a new one by William Drake, is only 10 years old and has a sumptuous case, the design being taken from a woodcut by Pugin, and apparently cost virtually the same as the organ which it houses! It is also on wheels so it can be moved a short distance if required. Although quite modest in size (Great 6/ Swell 4/ Pedal 2) the organ gives a remarkable account of itself. Simon finished his introduction with an extract from Elgar’s organ sonata – the organ sounded twice its size. William Drake always seems to achieve a satisfaction of tone and here it certainly paid off. For the next three-quarters of an hour members had a chance to explore the instrument for themselves and the wonders of the chapel. Just by the entrance door is a broom-cupboard in which the suffragette Emily Davison (she sadly met her end under the King’s horse in the Derby you may recall) hid illegally on census night 1911. Therefore her address for the census is ‘House of Commons’ thereby substantiating a woman’s claim to equal rights as a man.

At 4pm we repaired to Westminster Hall and were split into two parties for a tour of the Palace. For the writer’s part we were led by Reg who regaled us with anecdotes which both amused and informed. We saw the Queen’s Robing Room, walked through both Houses and whilst we were in the chamber stood in the area opposite the front benches, imagining the august (and some not so august perhaps!) company who occupied the seats. We were told of the colour coding of the leather upholstery – red for the Lords and green for the Commons – port and starboard? We viewed the Central Lobby and the Division Lobbies and all the magnificent art-work which adorned the place. There were very few places to sit on the tour (we were told in no uncertain terms you could not sit down when in either the Lords or the Commons chambers) and quite frankly when we got to the end the writer for one was pleased to rest his legs!

After returning to Westminster Hall, Simon very kindly suggested that there might be several of us who would like more time in the chapel. This was taken up with enthusiasm by several who felt their time was cut short in the first session. This was typical of the welcome we had from Simon and the Palace staff – so helpful and accommodating. It was unanimously agreed the event had been a tremendous success and Simon was thanked with acclamation (and a gift!).

Afterwards the writer and his wife returned to St Stephen’s Tavern in Parliament Square for a well-earned drink. No wonder this hostelry is popular with the MPs, for the pub is equipped with a division bell so they can get back to vote in time. And on top of that they produce a very good pint served by very obliging bar staff!

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