Thanks to my fellow City of London Guide Lindsay Schussman, today I enjoyed a visit to The Elizabeth Tower, part of the Palace of Westminster, which houses Big Ben. It’s a stiff climb up the 334 steps but it’s worth it! To see the famous bell and its 4 smaller companions, then hear them chime (wearing ear plugs!) was unforgettable.
The 96m tower was designed by architect Charles Barry, assisted by the Gothic genius that was AWN Pugin. The bell itself was not the first one; that 16 tonne one, built in Stockton-on-Tees, was damaged, so the Whitechapel Foundry made a new one.
The new 13.7 tonne bell was hauled up by hand, 63m up to the belfry. And why is it called Big Ben? There are 2 theories: either it was named after a popular champion boxer Benjamin Caunt; or Benjamin Hall MP, who was one of the men in charge of the work and quite a big fellow!
Some facts: Big Ben chimes 156 times a day, to the tune based on Handel’s ‘Messiah’. The bell is 2.2m tall and 2.7m wide and has a hairline crack in it.The bells are fixed and hit by a hammer, so do not swing. In the turret, there is a microphone to pick up the chiming sounds for the BBC. As for the clock face, each dial is 7m across and made from cast iron. The hour hand is 2.7m long, each minute hand 4.3m.
A team of experts abseil on ropes every 5 years to carry our repairs. Inside the Mechanism Room, the 4.4m-long pendulum swings side to side every 2 seconds. On top of the pendulum is a stack of old pennies which help make sure the time is exactly right. Adding or taking off a coin changes the clock’s speed by just under half a second a day. The clock is wound 3 times a week to make sure the correct time is kept.
Tours are available to UK permanent residents only, via your local MP: visit http://www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-and-tours/tours-of-parliament/bigben/