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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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” 🙂
More information on the Parliament website.