Big Ben Tour review
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I climbed up Big Ben today to see the bell, which was pretty cool. It's not as easy to get into Big Ben as it is to get into the Houses of Parliament itself, which is a bit wierd. You can't just turn up and ask for a tour. What you have to do is write a letter to your local MP and ask for a ticket. I did that way back in May, and got a place for today a few weeks later -- four months in the future. They make you fill out a little spreadsheet too with all your personal details, so they can perform a security check. And that's before you even step through the door and get frisked and have your photo taken.
It's well worth it though. But when I got the letter they made it sound a little scarier than it actually is. First of all they insist you bring two forms of ID (like a passport, driving licence or utility bill). And they ban everything from your camera to phone, and even food and drink. If you turn up one minute late, they say, you won't be allowed in. And then you turn over to the next page and they start talking about the stairs. No sandals, no flip-flops, no one with heart complaints, breathing problems or vertigo can go, and pregnant women should give it a miss. It's a bit like boarding a rollercoaster at the funfair, when they warn anyone with a dodgy ticker that they're risking impending death.
The meeting point for the tour is actually across the road in Portcullis House, where all the MPs have their offices. This is where you get frisked and have you photo taken. They also confiscate your bags and cameras (so no photos allowed). This is quite a good place to start the tour, I thought, because you get to have a nose around somewhere where you're not allowed to go. You don't get to see much more than the open-plan foyer, but you can have a look at the leafy green trees. (So that's where all our taxes are going -- the MPs are planting trees indoors!) Our guide even told us a little bit about the history and layout of Portcullis House, which was a bonus. After that you head through a "secret tunnel" (which is not actually secret) that leads from Portcullis House to Parliament, passing underneath the busy road.
You don't get to see any part of Parliament other than the clock tower -- it's strictly about Big Ben. And the first bit is by far the hardest -- 115 steps up to the first room. So rest assured that you don't have to climb all 334 steps in one go, which was a relief. He splits it up into four stages with a long rest inbetween where he does some talking. So when you get that scary letter beforehand warning you to write your will just ignore it -- if you've ever managed to climb up St. Paul's or The Monument then you will find this easy-peasy.
The first part of the talk was all about the history of the building and the bell... who designed it, who built it, and who installed it etc. And our guide was pretty good and he went into a lot of detail. There's not a lot to see in this first room though, just a big poster on the wall and some seats were you can catch your breath. There's not much to see when you're climbing up the stairs either. They are just a load of tight windy stone stairs, with narrow windows every now and then to let in some light.
After that you head up another load of stairs to the clock mechanism. It's a big old iron-looking thing with cogs and wheels and pulleys, and a pendulum that disappears into the floor. You can't actually see all the way down the shaft, so you don't have to worry about bringing your head for heights. The whole thing is enclosed in this one room, with rods disappearing into the ceiling and walls to pull the clocks and bong the bells. When it hit half-past nine he warned us about a coming noise, and the whole thing whirred into action to ring the half-past chime. Pulleys pulled, levers banged up and down, cogs clanked round, and the bells rang out tens of metres above our heads.
After that bit of excitement you head up to the belfry and see the Big Ben bell. You actually get to go right inside the bell room and stand up close to it -- six feet away from the hammer and bell. While we were waiting for showtime he pointed out some interesting cracks in the casing and some mighty great holes too -- which apparently gives the bell its distinctive sound. You can also take in some fine views of the skyline, looking down on Parliament and Whitehall, but the highlight is when the old guy goes off. When 10 o'clock came we were standing right next to it, seeing the hammer hit and the bell gonging and bonging ten times in a row. Our guide had handily dished out some earplugs beforehand, which we were obliged to wedge into our lugs, but it was still incredibly loud. Loud enough to make your insides vibrate. I think a few of my teeth crumbled into dust as well. And it's not just Big Ben chiming either -- there are several bells all around you, one for each note of the tune.
After that you head back down a few stairs to the clock faces. You get to stand right behind them too, towering twenty feet from the floor to ceiling, with the little white panes of glass that make up the face close enough to touch. You can even see the shadow of the big hands moving outside, as they pass across the glass. He showed us a little peepy hole pane of glass that could be popped out to clear the pigeons off the hands, but sadly he wasn't allowed to open it, otherwise we could all have stuck our head out and had a look outside.
And that was it, sadly. All that remained was for us to walk back down. But it was definitely worth doing though. It's well worth jumping through all the hoops and writing to your MP. How many people can say they have stood next to the Big Ben bell when it chimed ten?
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