Wishing all our readers a very happy Easter!

Maritime Greenwich will celebrate 20 years of UNESCO World Heritage Listing with a “spectacular” lighting event next Tuesday night. The lights will be switched on at 8.30pm on 18th April, illuminating landmarks including the Cutty Sark, the Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory as well as the Old Royal Naval College. The event, the first in a series to mark the 20 year anniversary this year, is the first time all the buildings have been lit up in unison and is a one night only event. Greenwich Park and the grounds of the National Maritime Museum and Old Royal Naval College will be kept open until 10pm to give visitors more time to witness the historic event. Maritime Greenwich was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997 due to its role in the progression of English artistic and scientific endeavour in the 17th and 18th centuries. The event takes place from 8.30pm to 11pm (Cutty Sark will be lit until 11pm) and is free to attend. For more, see www.rmg.co.uk. PICTURE: RMG

 A memorial garden to Princess Diana has opened at Kensington Palace, marking 20 years since her death. The temporary ‘White Garden’ – located in what was formerly the Sunken Garden which often featured floral displays admired by the Princess – features flowers and foliage inspired by memories of the Princess’s life, image and style. The garden, which can be seen from a public walkway, complements the exhibition, Diana: Her Fashion Story, currently on show in the palace. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace/.

Mark Wallinger’s work, Ecce Homo – a life-sized sculpture of Jesus Christ with his hands bound behind his back and a crown of barbed wire on his head, has been placed at the top of St Paul’s Cathedral’s west steps for Easter. The sculpture, which will be at the cathedral for six weeks, represents Christ as he stands alone, waiting for judgement and a sentence of death. The sculpture is being presented by the cathedral in partnership with Amnesty International and the Turner Prize winning artist to highlight the plight of all those currently in prison, suffering torture or facing execution because of their political, religious or other conscientiously-held beliefs. The statue first appeared on the Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth in 1999. For more, see www.stpauls.co.uk.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

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Commonly thought to be older than it actually is due to its Gothic stylings (although, to be fair, parts of it do date from medieval times), the Palace of Westminster – or, as it’s more commonly known, the Houses of Parliament – didn’t actually take on much of its current appearance until the latter half of the 19th century.

The need for a new building for parliament arose after 1834 when a fire, caused by the overheating of two underfloor stoves used to incinerate the Exchequer’s obsolete tally sticks, tore through the former complex, leaving only some structures from the old palace intact. They included the 11th century Westminster Hall (the largest in Europe when it was built), 14th century Jewel Tower and a chapterhouse, crypt and cloisters, all of which was once attached to the now gone St Stephen’s Chapel.

Houses-of-Parliament2While King William IV offered the use of Buckingham Palace for Parliament, the idea – along with a host of other options – was rejected as unsuitable. Instead, a competition was held for a new design and after almost 100 entries were considered, architect Charles Barry and his design for a new palace in the perpendicular Gothic style was chosen. Interestingly, while Barry was a classical architect, under the terms of the competition, designs were required to be in a Gothic style, thought to embody conservative values .

Incorporating some of the remains of the old palace – including Westminster Hall but not the Jewel Tower which to this day stands alone – the design was based around a series of internal courtyards with the House of Commons and House of Lords located on either side of a central lobby (first known as Octagonal Hall). The design involved reclaiming some land from the Thames so the building’s main river-facing facade could be completed.

Towers stand at either end of the complex – the Victoria Tower over the Sovereign’s Entrance at the southern end of the complex (for many years the tallest square stone tower in the world) and the narrower tower formerly known as the Clock Tower which houses the bell Big Ben, at the northern end – and there is a central Octagonal Tower which stands directly over the Central Lobby. The Clock Tower, incidentally, was renamed the Elizabeth Tower last year in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee (for more on it and Big Ben, see our earlier entries here and here).

Other towers include the Speaker’s Tower (located at the northern end of the building on the waterfront, this contains a residence for the Speaker), the Chancellor’s Tower (located at the southern end, it too contained a residence originally used by the Lord Chancellor) and St Stephen’s Tower – located in the middle of the building’s west front, it contains the public entrance to the building. Significant other rooms in the palace complex include the Robing Room – where the Queen puts on her ceremonial robes and crown before the State Opening of Parliament – and the Royal Gallery, used for state occasions.

The foundation stone (the building was constructed out of sand-coloured limestone from Yorkshire) was laid in 1840 and construction of the monumental building – which features more than 1,100 rooms and two miles of passageways – wasn’t completely finished until the 1870s although most of the work had been completed by 1860 (the year Barry died). The House of Lords first sat in their new chamber in 1847 and the House of Commons in 1852 (it was at this point that Barry was knighted for his work).

The cost, meanwhile, originally estimated at less than £750,000, ended up coming in at more than £2 million.

Much of the interior decoration owes its appearance to the Gothic revivalist Augustus Pugin who designed everything from wallpapers, to floor tiles and furnishings. Pugin also helped Barry with the external appearance but like Barry died before the project was completely finished (in 1852).

The palace was bombed numerous times in World War II – in one raid, the Commons Chamber was destroyed as firefighters opted to save the much older Westminster Hall instead. It was later rebuilt under the direction of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and completed by 1950. Other aspects of the building have also been restored.

A Grade I-listed building classified as a World Heritage Site, Barry’s Houses of Parliament remain one of London’s most iconic structures. We’ll be looking in more detail at some of the building’s features in future posts.

WHERE: Houses of Parliament (nearest Tube stations are Westminster, St James’s Park and Embankment); WHEN: Tours (75 minutes) are run from 9.15am to 4.30pm on Saturdays (also six days a week during summer opening); COST: £15 adults/£10 concessions/£6 children five to 15 years (children under five are free). Prices go up after 1st April – check website for details and to purchase tickets (tours for UK residents, including climbing the Elizabeth Tower, can also be arranged through your MP); WEBSITE: www.parliament.uk.

For more, see Robert Wilson’s guide to the The Houses of Parliament or David Cannadine’s indepth,  The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture. For more on the story of the fire in 1834, see head parliamentary archivist Caroline Shenton’s recent book The Day Parliament Burned Down.

Daytripper – Avebury…

October 12, 2012

One of Britain’s most significant pre-historic sites, the small village of Avebury in Wiltshire – to the west of London –  sits in the midst of a stunning series of standing stones, the remains of three vast stone circles built around 2,600 BC.

A World Heritage Site, the vast outer circle of stones – which contains two smaller circles of stones and other associated stones – is around 3/4 of a mile in circumference and about 1,115 feet across the middle. It stands inside a three to four metre deep ditch which despite, the millenniums of weathering, still looks impressive to the eye.

It remains a matter of speculation what the purpose of the ditch and the standing stones was, although some have suggested there was a religious purpose in their creation.

The stone circle (pictured) is now managed by the National Trust – see their website for opening times.

Stretching away to the south-east and south-west from the stone circle are two great “avenues” of pairs of stones, known as the West Kennet and Beckhampton Avenues – perhaps the last of what were originally four avenues. West Kennet is by far the best preserved of the two.

It’s worth having a car for there are several other Neolithic sites nearby including the stunning Silbury Hill (pictured below), located almost directly south of Avebury. At around 37 metres high it is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe (while you can’t access the site of the hill itself, you can get some stunning views from a carpark). Work on the hill is said to have started at about 2,400 BC but its not known conclusively when it was finished.

Further to the south (1.2 miles from Avebury village) is the West Kennet Long Barrow, one of the longest burial mounds in Britain. Dating from about 3,700 BC, remains of 36 people were placed in here soon after it was first built. The barrow is open for inspection. To the east stands The Sanctuary, once site of a double stone circle.

Back to Avebury village – which was originally founded in Anglo-Saxon times (a Romano-British settlement had stood further to the south) – and here, as well as exploring the stone circles, it’s worth taking the time to visit Avebury Manor.

The manor is the former home of Alexander Keiller, who was responsible for much of the excavation work that took place here in the early 20th century as well as the re-erection of many of the stones, and is also said to have once hosted Queen Anne for a meal. Now a National Trust property, it recently starred in the BBC series, The Manor Reborn. Check the National Trust website for opening times – an admission charge applies.

There’s also a museum, the Alexander-Keiller Museum, which was established by the man himself  in 1938 in the manor’s old stable to display some of his finds (it now also includes the threshing barn), and a cafe and National Trust shop.

While it is possible to reach Avebury by public transport, a car can be a good idea to get around to the various sites – particularly if under time constraints.

The oldest intact building in London is generally believed to be the White Tower, which stands in the heart of the Tower of London.

Construction on the White Tower (which stands to the right in the picture) was started on the orders of William the Conqueror some time prior to 1070 and was completed by 1100. The newly appointed Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf, was placed in charge of the project which used stone imported from Normandy (much of this was replaced in later centuries).

Built as a towering stronghold and fortress for the English kings, the walls of the tower at 15 feet (4.5 metres) thick and 90 feet (27 metres) high. It was later enclosed by a curtain wall and moat, taking the shape of the Tower of London as we now know it by about 1350.

The White Tower, also known as the Great Tower, has been the scene of many dramatic events in British history – from the deposition of Richard II in 1399 to the disappearance (and possible murder) or the Princes in the Tower – Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, around 1483 (two skeletons, which some believed to be theirs, were unearthed here in 1674).

The White Tower, which is now part of a World Heritage Site, contains the splendid 11th century Chapel of St John the Evangelist. While three of the turrets at the corners of the tower are square, the fourth – the north-east turret, is round and once contained the first royal observatory.

The onion-shaped domes and weathervanes on the turrets were added in the 1520s.

These days the tower contains an exhibition of royal armour – including that worn by King Henry VIII – as well as exhibits on the tower’s history.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest tube station is Tower Hill); WHEN: Tuesday to Saturday 9am to 4.30pm; Sunday to Monday 10pm to 4.30pm (closing times are 5.30pm between March and October); COST £18.70 an adult/£15.95 concessions/£10.45 a child (children under five free)/£51.70 for a family of two adults and up to six children; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/

PICTURE: Stephen Pond/Historic Royal Palaces