The Palace of Westminster is perhaps one of London’s most iconic buildings. It’s where all the UK’s politicians meet and it’s where all laws are made, but do you know how it came to be? In today’s blog post, we’ll be taking an informative look at the seat of our government and its storied history. From its beginnings over a millennium ago to surviving the Blitz, this is the history of the Palace of Westminster.

Royal origins

The original site of the Palace of Westminster was built on an eyot in the River Thames known as Thorney Island, which no longer exists. This site was of strategic importance to King Canute from as early as 1016, when he used the island as his royal residence. It was Edward the Confessor who first built a royal palace at the location — around the same time he built Westminster Abbey — in the middle of the 11th century.

The oldest part of the palace that still exists today is known as Westminster Hall, which was built by King William II in the late 1090s. For much of the medieval period, it became tradition that the ruling monarch would take up their principal residence at the Palace.

The rise of parliament

The King’s council, which was a precursor to parliament, would meet in Westminster Hall to discuss their plans for the country and laying the foundations of what was to come. The first official parliament met in the Hall in 1295, and almost every single following parliament for the next 400 years took place there. Because the building was constructed as a royal residence, there were no purpose-built chambers for parliament as there are today. State ceremonies were held in what had been King Henry III’s bedchamber, while the House of Lords would meet in the Queen’s chamber.

The burning of the commons

By the 18th century, parliamentarians had their own building, but the whole site was showing signs of ageing, and its limited space had become a problem for the growing size of parliamentary business. There were calls to build a new palace, but instead yet more buildings were constructed to improve the existing site. It wouldn’t last for long however, as a fire in 1834 burned down both houses and many of the other buildings at the palace. King William IV offered up the nearly finished Buckingham Palace to parliament, but it was considered unsuitable and was rejected.

A new home

Following the fire, some chambers were repaired for temporary use, and parliament set about building a new home. Designs were submitted by some of the foremost architects of the day, but the ultimate winner, Augustus W. N. Pugin, was forced to submit his Gothic design through another architect, Charles Barry. Due to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, it was likely that his ideas would have been rejected. The first brick was laid on 27 April 1840, with the Lords Chamber and Commons Chamber completed in 1847 and 1852 respectively, and the whole project was completed by 1870.

Surviving war

During the Blitz of WWII, the Palace was hit by bombs on fourteen different raids, destroying some parts of the building and killing several people. One bomb set the roof of the House of Commons on fire, while another did the same to Westminster Hall. Only one of them could be saved, and the Hall was chosen. The Commons Chamber was destroyed by the fire, but it was rebuilt in the years after the war. Today, the Palace is in urgent need of repairs costing upwards of £7 billion, which will begin in 2022 and last for six years.

As you can see, the seat of power in the United Kingdom has a long and storied history. If you want a chance to see this and many other fantastic London landmarks, then the Foxtrail scavenger hunt is the ideal activity for you. Whether with your family, friends, or work colleagues, you’ll have to work together to beat the cunning fox. Find out more about our exciting trails and book your trip today!

Londoners have always loved exploring the city on foot, and have been doing so for thousands of years. As the novelist and historian Walter Besant wrote in 1897, “I’ve been walking about London for the last 30 years, and I find something fresh in it every day”. In this post, we’ll take you through the history of walking in London, from famous literary ramblers like Virginia Woolf, right up to the urban adventurers of the present day.

The Romans arrive on foot

Romans didn’t waste any time when it came to walking — or, to be specific, when it came to marching. When they first arrived in the city they christened ‘Londinium’ all the way back in AD 43, one of the first things they began to do was build a network of roads to allow them to march from one place to another as quickly as possible. The Romans built their roads straight— levelling anything which got in their way in the process — as this allowed them to take the most direct route and reduced travel times.

Of the fifteen major road routes the Romans built during their conquest of Britain, seven ran through London, showing the importance of the city. You can still walk along the remains of one today: Oxford Street runs directly over the route of the old Roman Road.

Promenading in the park

Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. James's Park (1783)
Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. James’s Park (1783)

Although the working people of London had always gotten around on foot, the idea of walking for leisure didn’t really become fashionable for members of the upper classes until late 18th century. But by the Georgian period, it had become very popular for the elite to stroll through London’s well-heeled streets and parks during the late afternoon, an activity that came to be known as ‘promenading’.

For the aristocracy, promenading was more about status than exploring the city. During the Regency era, a walk in the park or through the streets wasn’t just a chance to get some fresh air: it was also a fashion show and social event, where people would show off their finery and stop to chat with other members of high society. Hyde Park was the place to see and be seen, and on a fine day during the spring and summer you could expect to see hoards of aristocratic men and women — and social climbers hoping to fit in — promenading in the park.

The figure of the flaneur

Towards the end of the 19 century, a new type of urban rambler emerged: the flâneur. Meaning ‘stroller’ or ‘saunterer’ in French, the word is thought to originate from old Norse, meaning ‘to wander without purpose’. But it wasn’t just about aimless wandering. For the flâneur, walking through the city streets was very much an intellectual pursuit.

While promenading was all about being seen, the flâneur preferred to observe the city around him, taking in the sights and sounds and indulging in a bit of people watching. The idea was to mingle among crowds of people from all walks of life, while remaining a detached observer with no real purpose or destination.

The typical London flâneur would have been wealthy and well-educated, with plenty of time to kill. It was a turning point for the upper classes: before this figure emerged, the elite preferred to keep away from urban crowds, but it was now fashionable to blend in with the lower classes on the street.

Creative walkers in the 20th century

During the early years of the 20th century, the idea of the flâneur continued to develop, and walking through the city became connected to creativity. The artistic bohemian set would take to the streets in search of ideas, using the swarms of people around them as inspiration.

One of London’s most famous creative ramblers was the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, who frequently explored the streets on foot in the 1920s and 30s, an activity she called ‘street-haunting’. In a 1927 essay on the subject of walking, she would write that “to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures.” Strolling the city’s streets and parks also provided solace during low or stressful periods: as she wrote in her diary in 1930, “to walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”

Modern urban explorers

ParkourAs the 20th century gave way to the 21st, urban thrill seekers began to practice a new type of exploration known as parkour, or free running. No longer content to stick to the city’s pavements and walkways, free runners sought to make the city their playground, climbing, vaulting, and leaping across London to put their agility and courage to the test. By taking flight, free runners were able to see the city from a different angle.

While parkour was originally invented in Paris, the release of a documentary called Jump London in 2003 brought free running out of the shadows and helped to popularise the sport. Before long, training groups and gyms were springing up across the capital, and London is now home to Parkour UK, the official governing body for free running.

If you’re looking for something a little less high-octane, then our Foxtrail London trail is the ideal activity for you. Along with your friends, family, or workmates, you’ll be put to the test as you try to follow our cunning Fox’s clues across the capital on foot in a thrilling race against the clock! Plus, you’ll get to see some of London’s most famous areas and landmarks in a whole new light. Learn more about Foxtrail here, or get in touch to make your booking today.