It was an effort, but I managed to dress up enough to be passable as a visitor to the House of Lords at Westminster Palace. Doreen, Les, and I arrived by cab to the back entrance of the palace and after passing through armed guards at security, I had my photo taken and was issued a photo ID badge. We hung our coats on Doreen’s labeled hook in a low ceiling and dimly lit ‘coat closet’ which was larger in size than my condo. I was advised that no photographs were allowed within the House of Lords and it would only be at the tail-end of the day when I would be granted permission to photograph in the Great Hall, which is the medieval portion of the palace that survived a great fire. I knew that in this situation, it would behoove me to follow the rules and not try to sneak in a few pictures.
We wandered the gold laden halls and ante-chambers adorned with fabric wallpaper, amazing original portraits of kings, queens, dukes, knights and books in glass cased shelves far older than the United States,. I have to admit thinking that the drapery in various rooms were so richly made that Scarlett O’Hara would have been proud to improvise and wear them to a Southern Ball. Ha.
After a proper cup of tea in the Peers Lounge, we stood in a room which held Queen Victoria’s throne (amazing), as well as a quick visit to the House of Commons session-in-progress (Cameron wasn’t present). following all that, we had a little wait in another spectacular area to watch for the formal procession into the House of Lords. Quite a bit of pomp and circumstance, to say the least. I can only just imagine what goes on when Her Majesty drops by for a visit.
In the House, we sat through several speeches, or rather, listened to several speeches, which were in line to commemorate International Women’s Day, so that was actually very interesting. There were youngish Lords, middle-age old Lords, very ancient Lords, the newly indoctrinated, or rather a newly accepted one into the Lords, and one in particular Lord whom I noticed didn’t seem to either care about being there or even dressing for the occasion.
People watching was good but the environs were spectacular! For those who love photography, only you would understand how I longed to take photos in the formal Parliament session as well as in all the nooks and crannies during these several fascinating hours in Westminster Palace (it wasn’t until this visit that I learned it had been the palace of a king at one time). The whole place is so OTT that even writing about it tends to give me pause to consider how much is too much to say and whether I am revealing secrets better left untold. While I did not have to sign a Confidentiality Agreement, I do feel there is a certain level of protocol to adhere to when talking about being in this centuries old building, seeing centuries old staffs, thrones, etc., and with all the centuries old habits most of the Lords and Ladies still adhere to quite stringently. It’s quite interesting and really one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences.
Having lunch in the House of Lords dining room was a step into such opulence and a test of the rigors of one’s best manners taught to me by my mother and grandmother, that I give thanks to them for that. I think every child needs lessons like these so when put into a possible situation where “Downton Abbey Protocol” is in order, there is no nervous embarrassment about how to conduct oneself. The server was fully regaled in what looked like ‘butler-wear’ and saying “Yes, M’lady” to my royal cousin which just rolled off his tongue smooth as butter.
The people I met were quite kind and friendly which made being a visitor, a relative to a Baroness, and an American, much easier. There is a certain air of elegance which was easy enough to slip into (although quite a contrast from being on the beaches of Costa Rica) and then slip out of at my earliest opportunity. A bit like the days of working in management and having to dress for a board meeting or some special function. I have loads of practice. Plus, having been a drama major in school, I can improvise pretty well when the situation calls for it. Life has a way to prepare us for things we could have never imagined in our wildest dreams. Listen up, kids, math may come in handy, too, so don’t always use that calculator, use your head.
Update: May 8, 2013. The last group of photos are from an update email sent today by the House of Lords newsletter. While the Royal Party was not present when I was there in March, this is how the chambers look and I was sitting in a section close to the floor, eye level with the throne. You can now see the opulence of the House of Lords. Also, this is the first time since 1996 that Prince Charles sat in with his mum during her speech.