On my last visit to London, I thought my private tour of the
Clock Tower would be the high point of my trip through British
history. I'd never have guessed that it would be the "waiting
room" that impressed me the most.
I arrived early for my tour, and walked along the Houses of Parliament
to get my bearings. The Clock Tower stood at the north end of
the palace. The October sky was a brilliant blue and the sun flashed
along the gilded filigree that decorated the clock face that stood
high above the busy street of Whitehall. At the proper time, I
presented myself, and my letter of introduction, to the ruddy-cheeked
guard at St Stephen's Gate.
"Ah, lovely," he said, ticking my name off a hand-written
list. "Just this way. You can wait in here."
I walked in from the bright autumn chill and into stony darkness
lit only by the red glow of space heaters. As my eyes adjusted
to the gloom, I saw to my right an immense stained-glass window
and, to my left, steps leading down to a great hall with a high
ceiling. I blinked as I took it all in. The guard, used to such
reaction from visitors, stood at my side.
"Westminster Hall," he said in a reverent tone, and
I realized where I was.
I imagined this long, dark hall with its high stone walls and
soaring oaken beams filled with lords and judges, peerage set
rank upon rank. This was the place where Sir Thomas More was condemned
to death, the place from which William Wallace was taken to be
tortured, and the place where Winston Churchill lay in state while
a mourning nation paid its respects.
Westminster Hall, built in the 11th century, has been a focal
point of British history for nearly a thousand years. Its age
alone is impressive; the ceiling itself dates back to 1394. I
stood at the top of the steps and drank in its grandeur. Below
beams of the peaked ceiling are arches of oak which rest in turn
on the backs of angels carved in oak. It is a truly awesome work
of architecture that has survived fires, wars, and centuries.
The guard seemed to appreciate my wonderment. He took a step
"You know," he said, "in the 1800s, they reinforced
the beams with wrought iron." He pointed, up into the gloomy
heights. "When they were up there, they found tennis balls."
Jolted from my gaping stare, I turned to him with a quizzical
"God's honest truth," he told me. "Tennis balls,
from the Tudor period. Henry the Eighth, he used to play tennis
I laughed. How could I not? This place, so full of history and
drama, was incongruously a place of sport. In days to come, I'd
see a score of tombs and monuments, but the image that stayed
with me was that of Henry Tudor burning off his youthful energy
with a quick set of tennis in Westminster Hall.