The world’s most celebrated clock is also a pedant’s dream, so let’s make things simple. Big Ben is technically the name of the 13-ton bell that (normally) chimes the hours from the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Since 2012, the tower itself has officially been called the Elizabeth Tower. And before that, it was known very unimaginatively as just ‘the Clock Tower’. Easy, right?
Still, when most Londoners talk about Big Ben, they mean the whole thing – bell, clock, tower and all. And there was plenty of talk in the run-up to Ben being covered up and silenced for repair work in 2017. The tower and all four clock faces are not due to be revealed again until 2021, leaving a whole generation of tourists disappointed at not being able to add what was formerly London’s most Instagrammed landmark to their holiday snaps.
Designed by architect Charles Barry as part of the Palace of Westminster, the Clock Tower was completed in 1859. The Great Clock started on 31 May that year, with the chimes of the Great Bell (that is, Big Ben himself) heard for the first time on 11 July and the quarter bells first chimed on 7 September. The Victorian clockwork still keeps surprising accuracy, thanks to a counterweight that relies on the stacking of old pennies.
Big Ben isn’t open to paying visitors, but if you’re a UK resident can arrange a tour of the tower through your local MP or a member of the House of Lords.
See how the famous clock works in our video below.