Last week I got to something that was probably the coolest thing I will ever do in London: I climbed Big Ben! I had been looking forward to this tour for months, and it did not disappoint. Standing behind the clock faces, and watching the bells chime at the top of the tower was even more magical than I had anticipated.
It turns out you can only climb Big Ben if you’re a British resident. The tour is free, but you have to reserve your spot through your Member of Parliament (just like White House tours must be booked through your local congressperson) and spots fill up months in advance. Even trickier, Big Ben will be closed starting December 16, 2016 for repairs and restoration until 2020!
As soon as I knew where in London I would be living (this past July) I contacted my MP to book a spot on a tour, and they were able to squeeze me in on a late November tour. I talked to a couple on my tour who had booked their spots last November – I was lucky to get in!
The tour began at Portcullis House, a government building that is the entrance to all of the House of Parliament buildings. with an underground tunnel that leads to the base of Elizabeth Tower. That’s the official name of the tower – Big Ben is the name of the bell at the top! We had to show two forms of ID (one photo ID and one proving our residential address in Britain) and then locked away our bags and cell phones, so that we couldn’t take any photos on the tour.
But luckily, you can literally find anything on the internet, and I found professional photos of everything on the tour, so you can see the inner workings as well! All of the shots of Big Ben from the ground or from the air (on the London Eye) were taken either by myself or my cousins when they visited in October, and all of the photos from inside the tower were found on the internet – you can visit the original source by clicking each photo.
After passing through security at Portcullis House, we were taken through an underground tunnel that leads to the base of Elizabeth Tower. We climbed 334 steps in total up to the belfry, but took a break about 1/3 of the way up in a side room to hear some of the history of the tower.
Elizabeth Tower was constructed after a fire in 1834 destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster. There was a competition to design a new Parliament building, and the architect Charles Barry won with his Gothic designs. The tower was completed in 1859, and Big Ben began ringing on July 11th, 1859.
After our little history lesson, we continued climbing and came to the level of the clock faces and clock gears. Each face is 23 feet (7 meters) in diameter, and the passageways behind the faces are quite narrow. Each clock face is lit by 28 energy efficient lightbulbs that cost £100 per bulb! In the old days, they used to be illuminated by gaslights, and a gas-lighter climbed the tower every night to illuminate each light by hand.
The clock dial is glazed with 312 pieces of opal glass, which is quite thin but very sturdy. Each hour hand weighs about 300kg. Each minute hand weighs about 100kg, and travels a distance of about 100 miles a year! The hour figure of 4 o’clock is depicted using the Roman numeral IV, rather than IIII as on other clocks.
In order to clean the clock faces, every 5-7 years they have skilled climbers hang down from the belfry on ropes, and they clean the front of each clock face. There is one removable panel of glass on each face, which is removed during the cleaning so that the clock maintenance staff can talk to the cleaners while they’re working. How crazy does this look?!
After seeing all four clock faces from behind, we entered the mechanism room, which sits in the center of the tower on the same level as the clock faces.
As you might have guessed, the clock mechanism is HUGE. It weighs around 5 tons! It functions almost exactly as it did in 1859 when it was first installed, except now the winding of the gears is electric, so that it doesn’t need to be wound up every day. However, it is still checked three times a week to make sure everything is in working order and exactly on time.
In addition to turning the clock hands, the mechanism also controls the ringing of the bells. In the belfry, there are five bells: Big Ben, the big bell in the center that rings the hour, and four bells surrounding it which play the Westminster Quarters melody every 15 minutes. At 15 minutes they play the first four notes, at 30 minutes they play eight notes, at 45 minutes they play 12 notes, and on the hour they play the full 16 notes of the song, followed by the ringing of Big Ben.
We were up there for 9:30 and 9:45 so we got to watch this process twice: just before the smaller bells chime, the clock mechanism begins whirring and clanging frantically, then there is a loud clatter and it slows. The first time this happened, I didn’t even hear the bells ringing, because the mechanism was so loud. The second time, I had to listen very, very closely, and heard them ringing faintly above us.
The clock is kept accurate by a swinging pendulum, which is 4.4 meters long and weighs 310 kg. This is the very top of it:
It swings every two seconds, and is kept perfectly balanced by stacks of pre-decimal pennies, an old kind of English penny that is no longer in circulation and is much thicker than pennies today. It is also balanced by a silver coin commemorating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. If the clock is a little slow, one old penny can be added to speed up the clock two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.
They mean business – this clock is exactly on time!
After seeing the clock mechanisms, we continued climbing up to the belfry, 334 steps to the top. We saw a defibrillator on the way up – probably has been necessary in the past!
The views from the top were beautiful. Here’s a great photo I found looking out over the rest of the Parliament buildings, and in the foreground you can clearly see some of the gilded decorations around the edge of the Elizabeth Tower.
And here he is, Big Ben himself!
Big Ben (the bell) is actually the second bell that was made for Elizabeth Tower. The first one got a crack in it when the architect rang it too hard as he was trying to get it to ring the perfect E Major note, so it had to be cracked and melted down into a brand new bell.
When the second bell arrived, the architect did the same thing: he rang it too hard and the bell developed a crack. This time, Parliament told him he couldn’t have a new bell and had to deal with that one. So in order to save the bell, they had to cut a small square above the crack and a small rectangle below the crack to stop it from spreading, which you can see in the photo above. Big Ben 2 has been going strong since 1859, but alas, it rings an E Flat note – they never did get that perfect E Major!
The bells are fixed into place, and are struck by hammers from the outside, rather than swinging and being struck from inside by clappers.
Here’s a great video from the UK Parliament’s YouTube page that shows the bells clanging 12 o’clock. There are four smaller bells that ring the 16 notes of the Westminster Quarters, then there is a pause, and Big Ben rings 12 times. We stood right in front of the hammer as it rang against Big Ben, and I could feel the vibrations through my whole body, particularly in my chest. I didn’t expect get so excited when I watched the smaller bells play the famous Westminster Quarters tune, but it was magical!
The lyrics to the Westminster Quarters are from Psalm 37:31:
“All through this hour,
Lord be my Guide.
That by thy power,
no foot shall slide.”
Watch all the way to the end!
When I took the earplugs out of my ears after the last gong, I could hear the reverberations very loudly all around me.
As we were leaving, the guide pointed out the four BBC4 microphones in one of the corners of the belfry that broadcast the bells live on the radio every evening at 6pm and midnight. They used to ring at noon as well, but one day during the 1980’s there were two repairmen in the belfry just before noon, while the microphones were switched on in anticipation of the broadcast. One tripped over his toolbox and said a stream of curse words, which were broadcast live on the radio. After that, they did away with the noon broadcasting of the bells!
The insider tour of Big Ben was something I had been looking forward to for months, and it exceeded even my high expectations. If I’m a British resident in 2020, I will definitely go back to see the newly-renovated tower – and so should you!
Follow Marathons and Macarons: