unique travel experiences

Month: June 2016

Visit the top of Big Ben!

You’ve seen “Big Ben” hundreds of times but did you know you can visit the top of the tower and see the real “Big Ben” for yourself? Big Ben being the largest of the 5 bells of course and not the actual tower itself  (The Elizabeth Tower) … we all know that. A chance to see the famous bells being struck, that have been heard, but not seen, by millions of people around the world.

13.5 ton Big Ben

13.5 ton Big Ben. Source: DS Pugh

There is a catch though! It’s not a tourist attraction like the ‘The London Eye’ or ‘Tower of London’ so you can’t simply rock up and buy a ticket. No, no – you can climb the 334 steps to see “Big Ben” and walk behind the opal inlayed clock faces but only  a), if you are a UK resident, and b), if you’ve contacted your local MP, or been invited by a member of the House of Lords first … if you know a friendly Lord that is. The tour is free of charge at least. I for one like the fact it isn’t a mainstream tourist attraction, with a process and privilege to being “invited” up. Unfortunately it’s not available to overseas visitors though.

Another “catch” is that the tour is generally fully booked up 6 months in advance so you better be quick as “Big Ben” is going to be closed for 3 years for vital maintenance with the last tour being at some point in December 2016. If you don’t get in before then you’ll be waiting until at least 2020 before you get another opportunity.

So after contacting my local MP Peter Lilley I received the coveted invite, booked the half day off from work and looked forward to attending (I also requested an invite to watch Prime Minister’s Questions too!) On the day itself you actually meet on the side of the road at Portcullis House, where the MPs have their offices. At this point you’re subjected to a variety of security checks, one of which was no bags or cameras, so this blog post has no internal photos of my own. Once on the tour you walk through a “secret” tunnel underneath the busy road and appear on the other side.

Big Ben Staircase

Big Ben Staircase. Source: UK Parliament

There are separate tours taking you to Parliament but the “Big Ben” tour is all about the tower itself. A tight windy stone staircase with 115 steps take you up to the first room. Here you hear about who designed the tower, who built it, how long it took etc. All the questions and answers you might expect.

The Big Ben clock mechanism

The Big Ben clock mechanism. Source: The Times

Next up is the room that holds the clock mechanism. Think cogs, wheels, levers, rods, pulleys and a 4m long pendulum that disappears into the floor. Big Ben’s accuracy for 150 years has been aided by a simple stack of old coins but some of these were replaced in 2009 by a new £5 to mark the 2012 Olympics. And the science of this? Adding or taking away coins effects the pendulum’s center of mass and the rate at which it swings. Adding one penny causes the clock to gain two-fifths of a second in 24 hours. You also get to walk and stand right behind the 7m in diameter clock faces, each with 312 pieces of opal glass. You can even see the shadow of the big hands as they move outside.

Big Ben's pendulum coins

Big Ben’s pendulum coins – Source Alan001946

Walk behind the Big Ben clock faces

Walk behind the Big Ben clock faces. Source: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Finally though it was time for the main event as were lead up into the belfry, where for the first time you see “Big Ben” and stand literally just 6 feet away from it. You see the crack in the bell that formed soon after installation requiring the engineers to turn the bell slightly so the hammer struck on an undamaged area. It’s this crack and subsequent repair work that gives the bell its distinctive sound. At 62 metres up you get some commanding views looking down on Parliament and Whitehall and sense the airiness of where you’re standing. Well the sound has to emanate out of the belfry across London somehow.

The highlight however is when the hour approaches and for us in our tour group this was 10am. Ear plugs were provided but I went for the fingers in ears approach instead. The famous ‘Westminster Quarters’ tune played first courtesy of the 4 quarter bells and then “Big Ben” bonged 10 times, the first bong signalling the hour. Once the dongs had subsided we exited the Belfry. I did notice that you can actually reach out to touch Big Ben up above the protective metal fence but I thought this might be frowned upon, and slightly disrespectful, so I didn’t.

Big Ben up in the belfry

Big Ben up in the belfry. Source – UK Parliament

So what was the whole experience like? It’s well worth it as you’re doing something very few others ever have the pleasure of doing, and you have to be a UK resident for a start. How many people can say they have stood next to the Big Ben bell when it was actually chiming? Once back on  Westminster Bridge I looked back up, took my first photo of the day and sighed thoughtfully “I was standing behind that clock face just 4o minutes earlier” 🙂

The Elizabeth Tower from Westminster Bridge

The Elizabeth Tower from Westminster Bridge

More information on the Parliament website.


Buy experiences or material possessions?

I’ve just celebrated my 40th birthday with friends and family in my local pub and it’s made me consider the old “experiences versus material possessions” debate. The theory that you should spend your money on experiences and travelling rather than “things” –  We’ve all seen the studies, those that suggest new “things” are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them, whereas a holiday or experience supposedly stays with us forever.

Reaching Everest base Camp with G Adventures - 2012

Reaching Everest base Camp with G Adventures – 2012

Well in an attempt to back the “experiences” camp, this weekend’s birthday celebrations made me realise that the expensive Tag watch I wanted to treat myself with would have been a lovely (but slightly grandiose) 40th birthday keepsake, but the cheap Casio digital watch a group of my best friends bought me last weekend feels more special, tells the time just as well, saves me £££s in the process … and only cost them £14.99 too. And the experience of opening it in front of everyone …was well …priceless.

Casio digital watch

One of my 40th birthday presents. A lovely £14.99 Casio digital watch

So in turn, backing the “things” camp … well I do love my iPhone 6 as that allows me to do ever so much and keeps me in contact with all my friends on Whatsapp. Admittedly I’d find it hard to do without it. Apart from that there’s my Brompton fold-up bike, which serves as a great way to commute into London and my MR2 “sports” car, but having owned it for over 12 years now the “thrill” has long since gone, and it’s much more a functional item now for getting from A to B. If it was a cheap Ford Fiesta it would serve its purpose just as well – if not better – like when trying to buy something bulky from B&Q. The wow factor of a recent wireless speaker purchase wore off extremely quickly and now I find I rarely use it at all.

Toyota MR2 sports car

My 16 year old Toyota MR2 sports car – back in 2003 when it was nice and shiny

But the “experiences” I’ve had leave a far longer lasting and satisfying memory. Like the time I trekked to Everest Base Camp back in 2012 and had a group photo in the high altitude sunshine with the rest of the group, the Full Moon photo in Koh Phangan with the Swedish girls and lads from Middlesborough I met in Hanoi just weeks earlier, completing the ‘RideLondon 100’ with my oldest pal Dan even though we got “photobombed” on the line by a beaming OAP, running 8 miles around Central Park with a famous supermodel (Christy Turlington) whose charity I’m now UK ambassador for, attempting to swim in the cold Welsh sea in November with my girlfriend Claire after a wedding the night before, even having a reflexology treatment with another friend Claire to experience what that feels like too. All of these “experiences” stick far more in the memory than “things” which is why the £££s I wanted to spend on “stuff” like that watch is going to be spent first on “experiences”with friends and family instead.

Being "photobombed" on the line as we finished the inaugural RideLondon100 bike ride - 2013

Being “photobombed” on the line as we finished the inaugural RideLondon100 bike ride – 2013

Running 8 miles around New Central Park with Christy Turlington

Running 8 miles around New Central Park with Christy Turlington – 2016

In fact rather than gaining more “stuff” I’m aiming to start having less, apart from the essentials that everybody needs to run and decorate a home that is. That might mean eBaying/gifting many “odds and sods” but I believe that less is more and we all have too much stuff cluttering up our lives anyway. And then not buying more “stuff” to replace the “stuff” I’ve just got rid of! NB. I don’t have children, so yes – I’m more than aware that when you have a family the amount of default “stuff” has to go up.

Another footnote to the 4-5 experiences above is that yes, trekking to Everest and flying to New York all involved having the money … but it’s money I’ve decided to spend that way rather than collecting a whole room full of gadgetry. One of my best experiences recently was cycling around Hertfordshire with a group of friends on a bike ride and that was pretty much free (apart from the entry free), and swimming in the cold Welsh sea was completely free!

Also reinforcing this drive to de-clutter is the recollection I have after returning from 6 months of travelling back in 2010 with just a rucksack full of possessions to realise how little “stuff” we actually need. On landing at Heathrow I was adamant I’d do a complete “de-clutter” … but I left it too long and within weeks I became unable to part with things again. This time I will be stronger 🙂

The Full Moon party in Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand - 2010

The Full Moon party in Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand – 2010



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