Hertfordshire and Beyond: Palace of Westminster

[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]

It was a day off. I was sleeping in, because it’d been a long few days and I wasn’t expecting anything that day. I’d only just woken up at noon when I got the call.

‘Hello?’ I said, sitting up in bed and trying to sound like someone who’d been awake and working for hours.

‘Are you doing anything tomorrow? Do you want some work?’

I’ve never woken up so fast. By the time I got off the phone, I had a job in London – some freelance work, nothing complicated, a client I’d worked for before. They had a meeting in Westminster and wanted some PR. I dragged myself out of bed and found my camera, setting my battery to charge and clearing out the SD card.

‘It’s in the Houses of Parliament,’ I was told that evening. It’s a parliamentary joint lobby on the future of the BBC. Some MPs will be there.

No problem. I buy a train ticket and head to bed early. I don’t need to be at Parliament until 3, no rush.

Image: Kat Clements

Image: Kat Clements

First impressions

When I walked out of Westminster station, I was momentarily overwhelmed. As you head up the steps you get a straight-on, close-up view of Big Ben, which was chiming the hour as I arrived. There was a red bus going past, there were official-looking black sedans with tinted windows, tourists everywhere, the Thames lapping at the edge of the Embankment. It was the most ridiculously British thing I’d ever seen – I had a surreal moment of disbelief, as though I were watching an American filmmaker’s idea of London.

A few hours later, I finally manage to get a call through to my client. I’d been told that I’d be briefed that day when we met in front of parliament, so I only took along my general wide-angle lens; I didn’t know anything about the setup, so I compromised.

Did you know you’re not allowed to carry a tripod into the Houses of Parliament? And you can’t take photos outside of the committee rooms, either. Made my life a little harder, but whatever.

Anyway – finally got the call through.

‘Oh yeah,’ he says, casually, ‘the NUJ want to use your photos too. Maybe the Writer’s Guild. Equity were asking as well.’

Minor panic attack.

‘Might make national news. Don’t stress it.’

By now I’m about as stressed as I’ve ever been in my life, sitting in the Victoria Tower Gardens, watching the Thames lap against the bank. Big Ben strikes 12. In three hours, I’m going to be walking into the home of our nation’s government, with my little Samsung NX200, to listen to MPs debate the future of the BBC, and my pictures could be going to the National Union of Journalists. This could literally be the beginning or the end of my career.

Exploring Westminster

I spent the next three hours exploring Westminster. I’d never actually been there before, so I wanted to take a look around. It’s pretty nice, but I wasn’t really dressed for walking – I was told to dress smartly, so I was wearing a professional suit and some smart, low heels. By the time I headed to meet my client outside St Stephens Gate, I was mostly done panicking. I’d spent a good proportion of that time imagining every possible worst-case scenario; my camera could break; my lens could get smashed; all my photos would turn out out of focus; I’d accidentally say something stupid and embarrassing in front of an MP or dignitary; I’d get lost in the Palace and end up getting arrested; just about any possible thing that could go wrong. I was already berating myself for not having brought my zoom lens; what if I was stuck at the back of the chamber? Maybe I should have brought my tripod. Was there an exception for committee rooms?

In short; I was panicking. I’ve done a lot of photography before; I’ve done a lot of freelance work before. But I’d never been to Parliament, and I had no idea what to expect, and I’d only got the call the day before; I hadn’t had a chance to do my research and prepare.

When I met my client at St Stephen’s Entrance, I pushed all the nerves aside and focussed on one thing: doing my job. This wouldn’t be too hard. I was a journalist. I’d done plenty of things like this before – only the location was different.

The Houses of Parliament, by the way, are pretty fancy. From the outside, mind you, the main impression is that “OTT” would be an understatement. The façade is carved and fluted with more gothic ornamentation per square foot than a Hammer Horror film. There are decorative twists and spikes on every flat surface. From a distance it’s charming; close to, it’s physically exhausting to look at.

To get inside, all visitors have to go through airport security style scanners, X-raying bags and metal detector arches. My client, the director of a non-profit representing the interests of BBC viewers, had a guide dog puppy (he and his wife train them to work with humans from a young age) with him, which made going through the scanners a little more awkward. But once you’re cleared by security, you can walk around to the grand entrance of Parliament and enter Westminster Hall.

Image: Kat Clements