27 Chapel Of St Mary Undercroft House Of Parliament 2

I was there…The House of Commons, the Prime Minister and Marble Toilets…

london-0356

There are around 200 toilets in the Houses of Parliament and, as befits their eminent users, those that were part of Barry’s original plan are extraordinarily lavish and feature luxurious marble panelling…

And we’re not talking just standard grey-white Carrera and Purbeck, desirable though they are. Barry specified a range of different, highly coloured and patterned marbles reflecting the pallet of early Victorian England – rich greens, reds, oranges ad browns. 150 years later many of those panels had become chipped, cracked, stained or otherwise damaged and we were commissioned to restore, repair or, if necessary, replace them.

We had been thoroughly security checked and issued with our access (nearly) all areas passes. But we weren’t given a map. And those 200 or so toilets are scattered among over 1,000 other rooms connected by over two miles of corridors. All we had to guide us was a list of toilets requiring our attention and they each had a name that described their location. The Toilet behind the Speaker’s Chair wasn’t that difficult to track down, but most of the other names didn’t really help – if you don’t know where corridor so-and-so is, trying to find a small room, second on its left means you’re still effectively lost. Sometime in our third or fourth week, we were walking down one of those long corridors when a door ahead opened just a few metres in front of us and we were faced by Mrs. (as she then still was) Thatcher. Now, my apprenticeship was both long and thorough but it failed in one significant detail: what do you say when you’re lost and looking for a toilet in the country’s most famous and important building and the Prime Minister looks you in the eye and says “Can I help you?”…

As an adjunct to that work, we were also asked to assist in restoration work in the crypt below St Stephen’s Hall – the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft (pictured above). This is the oldest remaining part of the Palace of Westminster and dates from the (very) late C.13th. Although its appearance today is dominated by Barry’s gilded redecoration undertaken in the 1860s, it remains the most magnificent space I have had the privilege to enter. And it is a privilege – few members of the public are ever granted access.

Chris Regan