Travel: The free route to democracy: Armed with his citizen's rights, Frank Barrett sets off for Westminster and finds that touring the Houses of Parliament can cost a mint

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The Independent Travel
THE TWO most exciting outings of my childhood were both to London and free of charge: ITV's Five O'Clock Club and the Houses of Parliament.

To obtain free tickets for the Five O'Clock Club was a simple matter of writing to the television company. Getting into Parliament, on the other hand, was rather more difficult. Even as an eight-year-old with a hazy grasp of democracy, this struck me as a curious state of affairs.

But on the whole, the Five O'Clock Club was much more fun. I achieved three minutes of fame, sitting next to Sandie Shaw as she shoelessly mimed her way through her latest hit.

To my shame I can remember little about the trip around Parliament. My aunty had arranged the visit with her MP, Leo Abse, who took us on a personally guided tour. My most vivid memory is watching a debate from the Strangers' Gallery and suffering a fit of the giggles when my brother imitated the 'Hear, hears' of the MPs below. To the huge embarrassment of my aunty, we were soundly ticked off by a stern attendant.

Sadly, Olly Beak hoots no more, Fred the dog has lost his bark and presenter Mu has long since moved on to greater things: to enjoy a free trip to the Five O'Clock Club now you would need a time machine.

By comparison, a tour of Parliament nowadays poses slightly less of a challenge, although the principle of time travel could still be said to apply. (Step into the precincts of the Palace of Westminster and you need to set your watch back at least 50 years.)

The Houses of Parliament Information office seems to encourage prospective visitors in the way that French fishermen greet shipments of Russian cod. 'If you want a tour, you will have to get in touch with your MP,' I was told. How long will I have to wait? 'If you're not choosy about dates, around a month I should say.' And if I am choosy? 'Now you're asking. . . .'

What about admission to the Strangers' Gallery to see the House of Commons in action? 'I can send you a leaflet about that. Basically, if you want to get in without a wait, come after 6pm on Mondays to Thursdays and after 9.30am on a Friday.'

How do you get in to see Prime Minister's Question Time? 'Ha] You'll need to write to your MP for tickets - that'll take you two months I reckon. . . .'

My MP is the Liberal Democrat Don Foster, who unseated the former Conservative Party chairman Chris Patten at the last election. He is still keen to make a good impression on his constituents, so requests for a tour of Parliament are handled with impressive dispatch. Within a week of registering my request, I was offered the chance to join a secondary-school party on a Monday morning tour.

As instructed, we met at the public entrance beneath the Victoria Tower. The party ahead of mine was from a Midlands junior school and seemed a bit confused about what it was visiting. 'This is where the Queen lives,' said one mite. ' 'Tisn't,' replied his chum. 'This is where they make taxes and all that lot. You know - where they have those rows on the telly.'

The MP who had sponsored this school trip was busy glad-handing his future voters. 'Do you know who I am?' he asked grandly. 'John Major?' suggested one baffled child.

Our group was to be shown around by Marie Bayliss, an approved guide. She told me that MPs delegated most of the showing around to an expert such as herself, turning up at the moment when parties reached the House of Commons chamber so that they could proudly point out the spot where they sit. (Indeed, this is more or less what happened.)

'Two rules: no photography and sitting down in certain places is punishable by death,' said Ms Bayliss. She provided some basic history. The building is a Royal palace, one that existed long before Parliament. 'Edward the Confessor wanted to live in it so he could watch Westminster Abbey, his pet project, being built. Kings and Queens lived here for 500 years until Edward VI found that living so near the river was too cold and damp, so he went to live in the Palace of Whitehall.'

Ms Bayliss insisted that we had to remember just two dates: 'Remember 1050: that is the year the palace was built. And I ask you to remember 1834, when a great fire burnt down most of the palace - only five parts escaped.'

The Great Fire of Westminster was the result of an extraordinary bureaucratic cock-up. The wooden tally-sticks on which the Government recorded peoples' tax payments used to be stored in the palace. One day, somebody decided that these ought to be cleared out and that the best way to do this would be to burn them. The dry sticks burnt rather well - too well, in fact. The resultant heat set off a blaze that eventually engulfed the entire palace.

A competition held to design a new Parliament building was won by Sir Charles Barry, working with Augustus Pugin. Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was given the task of overseeing the project.

'Prince Albert wanted the best of British craftmanship,' Ms Bayliss told us. 'Minton tiles for the fireplaces; 23 1/4 -carat gold for decoration; wood from every kind of British tree for the floors.'

The Parliamentary tour follows what is called the Line of Route, which varies according to whether either or both of the Houses is sitting. We took Route One, which began in the Norman Porch, proceeded to the Queen's Robing Room, the Royal Gallery, the Prince's Chamber and into the chamber of the House of Lords.

The House of Lords chamber is decorated with ostentatious dazzle: 'It took three years to complete the regilding of the throne,' Ms Bayliss explained. 'See the bench where the bishops sit: it's the only one that has arms - it's said that the arms had to be put on to stop the bishops falling off when they went to sleep.'

After passing through the Central Lobby (where we all have the right to 'lobby' our MP by completing a green card) and the adjoining Commons Lobby, the tour took us into the 'No' Division lobbies (the lobbies are where MPs are locked up until the counting of votes is completed).

And finally we stepped hesitantly into the chamber of the House of Commons itself.

'It's very small - much more intimate than you would have thought from seeing it on television,' said Ms Bayliss. And, indeed, the chamber is tiny - hardly any distance between the two front benches and no distance at all from front bench to the backmost back bench.

I stood at the dispatch box where the Prime Minister perches so nervously at Question Time with his giant folder. Ms Bayliss informed us that the boxes contained 'holy books'. The reason for this is that anyone, such as a government minister, who touches the dispatch box while speaking is compelled to tell the truth. 'Ho, ho,' we all chuckled at this piece of information.

The secondary school group I was accompanying had to dash on to its next appointment - a trip around the Stock Exchange - leaving me on my own. Don Foster generously offered to take me on a quick tour around some of the sights off the Line of Route. He led me through a door marked 'Private: No admission': 'When I was new here I used to think that these signs applied to me as well,' he said.

We wove through a labyrinth of corridors and courtyards, taking in the gorgeous view over Westminster Bridge from the House of Commons terrace and dropping in on the Liberal whips' office (which was full of ringing phones and empty of people). We paused at the Commons shop, where Mr Foster encouraged me to buy a box of House of Commons After Dinner mints for pounds 2.40: 'Jolly good value,' he enthused (suspiciously enthusiastic: are MPs working on a commission on sales?).

Finally we ended up at one of the handsomely appointed lounges overlooking the river, where we ordered tea. (I couldn't help noticing that the only other occupant was Sebastian Coe.) Mr Foster told such a heart- rending tale about the financial hardships of life as an MP that I felt obliged to pay.

Cost of trip around the Palace of Westminster: Nil. Cost of mints and tea for two (plus tip): pounds 3.90. Total: pounds 3.90. Of course, I should have known there's no such thing as a free trip. But at the Five O'Clock Club, as I recall, we were all given a shilling box of Smarties as we left, for being such a good audience: House of Commons, please note.

(Photograph omitted)

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