Like many locations in London, the streets tell their own historic journeys to the present day. A walk down Whitehall, however, opens the door to the power and majesty that has ruled the British Empire for hundreds of years. Whitehall is the street of government. On this walk visitors will encounter not only the present center of power (the Houses of Parliament), but also some of the historic grit and determination (the Cabinet War Rooms) that kept the country safe and free for centuries.
This walk begins at the landmark most associated with London, Big Ben (tube: Westminster).
Few travelers know that the real name of this icon of British life is actually St. Stephen’s Clock Tower, with the bell being “Ben.” At 120 feet tall, with a 20-plus foot dial and clock hands as tall as a red, double-decker bus, St. Stephen’s Clock Tower got its nickname from Sir Benjamin Hall, who was Commissioner of Works and Forests during the time the bell was hung in 1856.
Before the Houses of Parliament were constructed, this area in the early 1800s was a series of dark and dingy streets. When Sir Charles Barry was selected to reconstruct a new Palace of Westminster, he designed this square to be open and welcoming. Today Parliament Square is best know for its statues, the most famous of which is no doubt Sir Winston Churchill, in a brooding pose looking in the direction of the House of Commons. In addition to the statue of Churchill, there are statues of Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Field-Marshall Smuts, Lords Canning and Derby, and (strangely enough) Abraham Lincoln.
Houses of Parliament
The correct name for the Houses of Parliament is actually the Palace of Westminster (the first Palace was built in the 11th century and occupied the land until it was destroyed by fire in 1512). Rebuilt but destroyed by a second, greater fire in 1834, the late-Gothic building that stands today was the design of Architect Sir Charles Barry during the time of Queen Victoria, who opened the first Parliament in that building in 1852.
Today, the Palace of Westminster includes not only the House of Commons and House of Lords (the bicameral legislature of the UK), but also committee rooms, libraries, dining rooms, residences (for the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Sergeant at Arms), Westminster Hall, and the crypt of St. Stephen’s Chapel. At the north end of the complex is the clock tower and Big Ben.
Visitors can view open debates in Parliament (with tickets from an MP, or by lining up for admission on the day of the debate, although admission is by no means guaranteed with limited seating). Perhaps more common is for visitors to tour the Houses of Parliament when they are not in session (for two months during the summer). These spectacular buildings are certainly worth the tour.
Cabinet War Rooms
Just off Parliament Street (which eventually turns into Whitehall) is King Charles Street, and at the end of that street, visitors will encounter one of the most sobering museums in London. Created as a bunker, this area of the Treasury Department was the command and control center for the British government during World War II. Although the portion that today serves as a part of the Imperial War Museum is just a fraction of its original size, visitors still feel (via recordings, documents, and actual war rooms) what it was like for the government to be planning war while under siege.
No. 10 Downing Street
The security risks no long allow visitors to travel down Downing Street to No. 10, the residence of the Prime Minister (akin to the White House), but because this is a short street, visitors can still see the house well from the gates at the street’s end (look for the red door). Next door, No. 11 is the residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Both houses appear small from the front, but they are large homes that extend back a good distance.
Half way down Whitehall, visitors will encounter the Horse Guards, where every day, they can witness one of the most colorful ceremonies in London, a parade from along Hyde Park and The Mall to Whitehall. Each day at 11:00 am (10:00 am on Sunday), the Household Cavalry changes guard. Beyond the grand archway lies the largest parade grounds in London (once the site of King Henry VIII’s tournament grounds), where ceremonies, such as Trooping the Colors, are held.
By continuing down Whitehall, visitors will eventually reach Trafalgar Square, the largest pigeon gathering in London (beneath the statue of Lord Nelson). This is also the location of the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery. Those museums, and many others in London, must be part of another walk, for this walk down Whitehall is done.