Big Ben

Attractions Whitehall
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Big Ben
Pachakis Dimitris/flickr

The world’s most celebrated clock is also a pedant’s dream. Big Ben is just the main bell, not the tower – we all know that. But then the über-pedants insist that the edifice isn’t even called St Stephen’s Tower, as the regular pedants hold, but is officially The Clock Tower. 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 Great Bell's strikes heard for the first time on 11 July and the quarter bells first chimed on 7 September. The clock still keeps surprising accuracy, thanks to a counterweight that relies on the stacking of old pennies. UK residents can arrange a tour of the Clock Tower through their local MP or member of the House of Lords.

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Venue name: Big Ben
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Address: Westminster
London
SW1A 0AA
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Zoe F
tastemaker

I was surprised to hear last year that the government allows UK residents to request a free tour of Big Ben, they kept that a bit quiet didn’t they?! I got to the tender age of 21 without knowing this, but many people I've spoken to since were also none the wiser!

All we had to do was email the MP in your constituency and a member of their office will sort it all out for you - there's obviously information to provide and a form to fill in for security, but pretty much easy-peasy. We weren’t too put off by the advanced booking requirement, instead thought of it as something to look forward to, and I can assure you it was well worth the 5 months wait we had... 

On the day you go to meeting point at nearby Portcullis House, and are required to go through an understandably thorough yet speedy security search and identification examination. After the whole group is assembled, the tour leader gives a briefing of what’s about to take place. This whole process to me kind of felt like we were about to embark on a top secret mission, add this to the fact that with our passes we swan past tourists and police/security alike and you feel in full on 007 mode. There weren’t any children in our group, but I feel like if they’re old enough to appreciate the opportunity they would love this!

The tour takes approximately 75 minutes to complete, and is well timed to allow for you to get scale the 334 spiral steps up to the bell and hear the chimes on the hour. On the way you to the top you stop of at many levels, all of which are very engaging and interesting along the way you hear the story of Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben and understand the significant history behind one of London’s most recognisable features. My favourite stop was probably when you go behind the clock face, which is a phenomenal experience – it is so iconic it just felt completely surreal! There are faces on each of the 4 sides of the tower, these are with a clock room in the middle, the outer walls concealing the mechanics are covered with oversized energy efficient bulbs which light up the glass panels that make up each clock face when its dark out. Another fascinating stop was in a room which encompassed some of the significant mechanisms which powered the clock, our leader was very knowledgeable explained the unconventional methods and efforts that have been gone to in order to achieve the accuracy (spoiler alert: it involves old pennies being used as weights to regulate the clockwork, each one coin added causes the clock to gain two-fifths of a second over a 24 hour period!). When we did eventually make it to the top we were introduced to the bell himself, this was another pinch-yourself moment – it seemed almost dreamlike to be up there. The Great Bell was just that, great; as large as I imagined it, it hung unapologetically bold and our guide pointed out some of the damage as explained to us in earlier stories. You were able to see down to all the people who all seemed so tiny compared to this great structure and all it holds, we had a few minutes to prepare ourselves and gear up to the pivotal moment – ensuring protective ear-wear was worn by all so no damage was sustained from the mighty chimes. Then, it happened, at 15:00 14th November 2016 I saw as Big Ben let out its recognisable clangs and in that moment time stood still for me as I thought how lucky I was to be there. One thing which was a bit disappointing was that no mobile phones or photography was allowed at any point throughout the tour, and although this allowed for us to live in the moment without distraction, I do which I had some pics to remember the experience by and to share with friends/family… can’t deny it would have made for very smug social media posts!

After the tour, it was suggested that we could go into the Houses of Parliament and attend one of the live debates happening, never one to turn down a bit of London culture we of course took the advice. I didn’t realise that anyone is welcome to sit in the public galleries and watch on whilst current issues or proposed new laws are debated, this is free of charge and did not require a booking – there was no queue we were welcomed straight in. This was a great way to end your visit, and ticked off another must do in London.

Now unfortunately, at the time of writing this review the tours are not available. We were fortunate enough toget in just before the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben tours temporarily closed to the public, owing to conservation works which began towards the beginning of the year. The programme of the renovation is scheduled to last three years, so although inevitably you’re in for a long wait before tours resume, these works are essential to ensure this beloved landmark remains in good condition and is safeguarded for future generations. In the meantime, as an alternative you may be interested in the Ceremony of the Keys at Tower of London which is also FREE –I’ve heard wonderful things about this, though I’m still waiting for my visit to come round, the wait list is currently up to a year so join the queue http://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/ceremony-of-the-keys/

Toni S
Tastemaker

Big Ben needs no introduction, one of the most iconic tower in London and most recognisable clock tower in the world. Tours of Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower are available (for UK residents) if you write to your constituent to request a visit, they will be able to put you on the list for a free tour of Big Ben and the tower. It is a very interesting tour about the history of the tower and how it came to be. The tour takes you up the tower all the way to the top, behind the clock face and in the bell tower. Be prepared to wait up to 6 months for the tour, it's worth the wait!


Pro tip: Directly opposite the tower, along the south bank, if you make your way below Westminster bridge to the other side of the south bank, you can see this breathtaking view of Big Ben. You may need to endure the smell of urine when walking in the tunnel.