Saturday, March 3, 2012

Clock Tower Tour: Big Ben Up Close

There's something magical about climbing to the top of a city's most recognizable landmark.  I felt it last year when I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  And I experienced it again this week when I climbed the Clock Tower and got an up close look at London's Big Ben.

And as much as I did want to see the interior of the Clock Tower, I had a bit of an ulterior motive as well.   A few months ago I was bemoaning my lack of a social life to my wise and funny friend Allison.  She suggested I plan something fun and invite others to join me.  So that's just what I did with the Clock Tower tour.

The free, small group tours are open only to UK residents and must be arranged in advance through your Member of Parliament (MP).   If, like me, you don't know who your MP is, just click here

After filling out some forms and clearing the background check we were assigned a date and time for our 75 minute tour.
View in the stairwell
 Our excellent guide led us up all 334 winding steps of the Clock Tower.  We made 2 stops along the way to learn about the history of this amazing structure which was completed in 1859. 

The center "train" of the great clock
 First we viewed the clock mechanism which is a working antique.  It as quite a feat of engineering at the time.  The minute hands on the clock face are 14 feet long and a special mechanism was invented to prevent the wind from impacting the movement of the hands.  Because of this mechanism, the clock is accurate to 2 seconds.  Clock makers still check the accuracy several times a week and make adjustments by adding or removing pennies from a shelf on the pendulum rod.  It's an amazing piece of machinery.
The Great Bell aka Big Ben
 Did you know that the nickname "Big Ben" actually refers to the largest of the bells housed within the tower?  It weighs over 13 tons and is nearly 9 feet in diameter.  We were given ear defenders (earplugs) to wear when the great bell struck twelve.  It was quite an experience!  There are also four smaller bells in the tower which together ring the Westminster chimes to mark each quarter hour.  Each evening the BBC broadcasts the Westminster chimes worldwide.

A look behind the dials
My favourite part of the tour was walking behind the giant clock faces.  They are framed in cast iron and each glazed with 312 separate pieces of opal glass.   The dials were originally lit by gas, but now 28 energy efficient light bulbs illuminate each side.  The clock faces are due to be cleaned this year.  Wouldn't it be fun to see those real-life "spidermen" dangling up there on ropes?  It's a dangerous job, not only because of the height, but also because the hands keep moving the whole time!

Photo credit:  here
Touring the Clock Tower was a great day out with some lovely friends and we learnt something too.  Next on my to-do list:  schedule a tour of Parliament so I can plan another girls day out in London!

*No photography allowed on the tour so these interior photos are courtesy of UK Parliament 


  1. How fun! I might have to organize my own trip because the school's organized tour of the clock in May is already filled up. How far in advance did you have to reserve the tour?

  2. Tanya, you should do it! They scheduled my tour for about 5 weeks after I contacted my MP's office. The wait time might be a bit more or less depending on the size of the group. I think you'd love it!

  3. I have to do this!! What a great idea, to make it an outing. Thanks for the post!

  4. What a super fun and interesting thing to do! I really enjoyed going inside the local clock tower in our town in Germany, but this would be even more amazing!

  5. Oh wow, how awesome. My son would LOVE this.


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