A close encounter with Big Ben

By now everyone should know that Big Ben is not the name of the clock tower next to the Houses of Parliament in London but, it is the nickname given to the Great Bell which stands at the top of the tower. The original bell was cracked beyond repair during testing and a new bell was recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry before been pulled up the tower’s belfry.

View of the Houses of Parliament from across the Thames

One of Whitechapel Bell Foundry bells

Once known as St.Stephen’s Tower or the Clock Tower, the name was changed in 2012 to Elizabeth Tower to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It is probably the best known landmark of London and indeed the UK.

View of the Elizabeth Tower at sunset

The subject of countless photographs, it is often seen in the background in movies filmed in London and in news bulletins. On New Year’s Eve, it shares the limelight with the London Eye during spectacular fireworks displays to mark the beginning of a new year.

Flowers and the Elizabeth Tower

View of Westminster Bridge at sunset

The clock tower is loved by residents and visitors alike but, not everyone might be aware that it is actually possible to join a guided tour to climb to the top of the tower and get a closer look of Big Ben.

View of a t-shirts souvenir stall in the evening

The tour is open to anyone who is resident in the UK and needs to be organized by applying in writing to your local MP several months before the intended date of the visit. Places get booked up very quickly and unlike many other London attractions, the entrance is free! All that it is required is to be reasonably fit to be able to climb 334 steps up a spiral staircase. Once the tour application has been accepted and Police background checks have been performed, the date and time for the tour is set.

View of Porticullis House from the South Bank

On the day, visitors (carrying a photo ID and proof of address) gather at Porticullis House, a Government building opposite the clock tower where, after going through airport-style security checks and issued with a Temporary Visitor Pass, they are met by their tour guide. Unfortunately, no cameras or phones are allowed on the tour so, lockers are provided for visitors to leave their personal belongings to be collected at the end of the tour. After a short briefing on Health and Safety the tour starts: there are a number of stops on different levels of the tower to give visitors time to rest and learn facts about the history of the tower, its construction and how the famous bell known as Big Ben was put in place. Walking behind the huge clock faces to learn how the precision of the clock timekeeping is maintained, visitors reach the top level. After looking out to a unique view of London from 62 meters up, they stand in front of Big Ben. Tours are timed to arrive there a few minutes before the clock strikes the hour and, after earplugs have been distributed and put in place, it is only a few more seconds before the hammer strikes one of the four small bells around Big Ben to produce the familiar chimes known the world over. When the hammer strikes Big Ben you realize why the earplugs were handed out: the whole room shakes and it is like watching a musical icon performing on stage. Visitors are then given a few more minutes to admire the view before starting the descent.

View of the certificate awarded for the Elizabeth Tower climb

A few more facts about the clock mechanism are explained and, after a certificate to remember the visit has been issued to each visitor, it is back to Porticullis House. Before leaving, there is the option to visit the first floor of the building where there are a number of portraits of famous politicians and former Prime Ministers. Once outside standing underneath the clock tower there is still time to look up and say: I was there!

Tube sign and Elizabeth Tower at night.

Periodically the clock face of the Elizabeth Tower gets cleaned; it normally takes four days (one for each clock face) for the work to be completed. The hands of the clock are frozen at twelve while four brave cleaners abseil down and painstakingly remove the dirt accumulated during years of exposure to the elements…a fantastic photo opportunity!

Four cleaners on the Elizabeth Tower clock face

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