Acting up - why Parliament relies on goats

The curious tale of the parchment from Newport Pagnell

It's comforting to know that in these days of tweeting MPs and office-hours sittings, Parliament still has a few of its quaint old traditions in place. Perhaps the quaintest of all is the custom of printing each new Act passed by MPs and Lords on parchment. These are then rolled up and stored in the Parliamentary Archives, housed in the Victoria Tower (the one at the far end of the building from the Clock Tower, aka Big Ben).

Acting up - why Parliament relies on goats

Because our humble (or not so humble) representatives are ever more eager when it comes to legislating (more Acts than Shakespeare), the Parliamentary authorities now spend £130,000 a year on parchment. Yes, you can still buy the stuff. Parliament use a firm in Newport Pagnell, apparently. Who knows how many goats and/or sheep (for they're the animals in the firing line) have to go to the great paddock in the sky to satisfy this demand for their dried skin? At least they can comfort themselves with the final thought that their ultimate sacrifice allows us to read full details of the Consumer Insurance (Disclosure and Representations) Act 2012.

I was lucky enough (thanks to the mighty London Historians) to visit the Parliamentary Archives last week, where Caroline Shenton, Clerk of the Records (ie the boss), showed us the temperature-controlled room* where all the Acts are stored. As you can see from the picture they vary in size, according to how complicated the particular piece of legislation is. The longest bill ever was the Land Tax Act of 1782. Unroll that baby and it stretches for a quarter of a mile - longer than Parliament itself.

But quaint traditions don't have to mean stuffy traditions, and Caroline revealed that the ‘handle everything with white gloves' myth is just that - a myth. In fact she's now banned them, as they make it harder for you to feel and control the document, meaning you're more likely to damage it. It's usually TV directors who want their presenters to wear white gloves, to heighten the impression of how rare and valuable the document is. Who'd have thought the media were so devious, eh?


* 16.5 degrees centigrade, since you ask

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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.