The Clock Tower Tour

By London_Nick Last edited 218 months ago
The Clock Tower Tour

Big Ben is possibly London's most famous landmark. Its chimes ring out all over London, and indeed the world through the BBC World service. But how many people can claim to have been up the clock tower and even behind the clock faces? Londonist's man on the inside, Nick, managed to secure himself a trip up the tower. Here's what he found:

First, a little history: when Londonist had their big day out to the Palace of Westminster, the ensuing post was littered with enough historical facts to make Simon Schama's mouth water. The Big Ben tour is no different. When the second Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834, and Charles Barry (along with Augustus Pugin) won a competition to build a new Palace, he included in his design a prominent clock tower. In 1848, the First Commissioner of Works, Lord Seymour, suggested that the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airey, and Edmund Denison QC MP should design the Great Clock. They in turn recommended the clockmaker Edward Dent to build it. Whilst the Palace itself was opened in 1852, the clock was not fully operational until 1859.

Continue reading after the jump to find out the weird and wonderful facts about the Clock Tower

Now, lets dispel a common myth about the clock tower. The tower is NOT called Big Ben. This is in fact the name of the large bell that chimes the hour. Nor, for all the smart-arses out there, is it officially known as St. Stephen's Tower. Its official name is simply The Clock Tower (St. Stephen's Tower is a strictly unofficial name).

Once inside the tower, we started up the spiral staircase towards our first rest point - the Prison Room. This is the bottom room of 10, which are above one another, leading all the way up to the belfry. The Prison Room is literally this - a prison for M.P.s. It's a shame that it hasn't been used since 1880, as we can certainly think of a number of M.P.s who could certainly do with incarceration. In fact, the last Member to be imprisoned was a certain Charles Bradlaugh who twice refused to take the oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria. (He believed that the state should not be influenced by religion, and refused to take the oath on the Bible - ahead of his time, perhaps).

After a short rest, we then clambered up to the next point of interest, the mechanism (I was beginning to see the benefits of non-smoking by this point). As we arrived, the clock struck a quarter to three, and the gigantic mechanism came clunking into action, spinning and gyrating away. The pendulum is 3.9 metres long and weighs 300 kg. On the pendulum rod is a small shelf on which there are a number of weights including some pre-decimal pennies. So fine is the adjustment of balance that the addition of just one penny will cause the clock to gain two-fifths of a second in 24 hours. All this did not seem very technical: Basically, a pile of pennies keep the clock accurate!

This particular mechanism also displays a fan-like component, known as "Denisen's Double Three-Legged Gravity Escapement", which has now become a standard feature in all large clocks and is fundamental to their accuracy.

We then staggered up a further 40-something steps to the belfry. The view is amazing. Forget the London Eye just across the river, this is a truly authentic view of London (and of course, is free!). We found ourselves in the presence of Big Ben himself: A 13.5 tonne bell, measuring 2.7 metres in diameter by 2.2 metres in height, which is hit by a 200kg hammer. His four companions, the quarter bells, weigh between one and four tonnes each. The first bell, a sixteen tonne giant cast in 1856 at Stockton-on-Tees, was brought to London by rail and sea, but soon after arrival a crack appeared. A new bell was cast in London in 1859, and is still used today. There is a crack in one side of the bell, which has been welded back together, and the bell rotated to avoid it shattering completely. The hammer was subsequently replaced with a lighter one.

It perturbed me slightly that the tour guide had a large pair of industrial ear-protectors, but had not offered us anything similar, and when the bells chimed three, I think I went temporarily deaf. The sound, whilst standing right next to the bells, was very impressive indeed. The tune played is apparently half-inched from Handel's Messiah for a church in Cambridge, and was similarly nicked for the Westminster chimes. It is in the key of F Major (Big Ben itself striking a low F - the tonic note), and has even had some words written for it:

"All through this hour, Lord be my guide. And by thy power, no foot shall slide".

How very Tim "lets think of a hackneyed rhyme that really doesn't make much sense" Rice.

We then headed down behind the huge clock faces. Each face is 7 metres in diameter. The minutes spaces are 30 centimetres square, the figures are 60 centimetres long, and the centre of each dial is 55 metres from the ground. Each face is illuminated by 28 55-watt energey saving lamps, each with a life of some 60,000 hours (beat that, Tesco value light bulbs!)

The hour hands are made of gun-metal (originally, these were made of iron, but were too heavy to move), each 2.74 metres long and weigh about 300kg. The minute hands are made of copper sheets 4.2 metres long, weigh 100 kg and travel a distance equal to 190km a year. The faces are each made up of 312 sheets of opal glass. During the second world war, the glass was entirely blown out, and replaced with wood until the end of the war. The clock mechanism, unlike the House of Commons, proved extremely resilient, and didn't even skip a beat.

There is a lantern at the very top of the tower, which is lit after dark if either House is in session (as opposed to a flag which flies from the Victoria Tower at the other end of the Palace in daylight). Under each clock face, there is a Latin phrase, which reads "O Lord, make safe our Queen Victoria the First, Praise be to God".

The clock stops twice a year, when we move from GMT to BST and back again. Occasionally, it has to be stopped for maintenance, as it was late last year, for a whole weekend. There have been a few unplanned stoppages, indeed once the entire mechanism exploded, but was amazingly fixed within a day.

There are a number of theories about where the name Big Ben came from. One is that it was named after an M.P. at the time, who was named Ben and was rather rotund, and sang the praises of the new clock tower so often that M.P. quipped that he should name it Big Ben after himself. Another is that it was named after a popular boxer at the time, nicknamed Big Ben, who made a shedload of money, and whose subsequent retirement coincided with the opening of the clock tower.

The Clock Tower, and its famous inhabitant, remain one of London's best-known and best-loved sights, and I felt truly privileged to get a chance to go up it. Unfortunately, it is more difficult for readers to do the same, as it all has to be arranged through your M.P., so when you have read the big day out to Westminster post, and have decided that you want to come here to the Palace for a tour, make sure you ask your M.P. about going on a tour up the clock tower. If you live in Bethnal Green and Bow, you could even take your M.P. up to the prison room, and leave him there... One can only hope!

Last Updated 07 February 2006