Climbing Big Ben

If you are a legal resident of England (and right now, luckily, we are!), you can write to your local MP (Member of Parliament) and ask for an invitation to climb Elizabeth Tower – the tower which houses the omnipresent clock faces overlooking Parliament and the Thames River and the massive bell known as Big Ben.  It takes a long time to get onto the list and get the invitation back but I have been fortunate enough to do it twice now.  What’s remarkable is most of my British friends have no idea that they can do this and are always amazed when I tell them I have done it!  So easy to get the invite, just takes awhile.

Anyway, I did it a couple of summers ago but my husband was unable to go with me at the time so I signed us up for another visit last summer and finally got our invite for Jan 23, yes, it does take a long time because in spite of most of my friends having no clue, a lot of Brits do know about it so it is very popular.  Elizabeth Tower is 344 steps to the top!  That’s a heck of a long climb for an old lady with arthritis!   But it is doable because there are several stops along the way – thank goodness.

The day starts by meeting in Portcullis House which is across the street from the tower where you prove you are who you say and you do live in England.  You are checked off the list and you must lock away your bags and cameras and phones.  Unfortunately, no photos allowed which is a shame because such great views from there.  Then you walk under the street to the tower and begin the climb.   You have a guide in front who opens the doors and leads the way up the stairs and a minder in back in case of claustrophobia or fear of heights or stragglers.

Don’t know how many steps is the climb to the first stop but it seems forever and just when I am at the point where I am going to have to embarrass myself but stopping on the stairs for a few minutes, I can see the door open for the first stop and I am able to stagger up the last 10 steps and pant my way inside and sit heavily on the bench.   Must have looked a bit done in because both guides asked if I was OK.   And this was my second time!!  The mind never remembers how far it is and how hard because if it did, I certainly would have declined going with my husband this time!

The first stop has a display where you get some of the information about how Big Ben – the bell- came about, and the building of the tower, and the controversy and the broken first bell.  All good stuff.  We started the climb around 11 a.m. so our guide is closely watching his time.  We want to be at the top for the 12 noon strike.   So all too soon we are leaving this room and climbing again.  I thought I remembered 4 stops on the way up and the first climb being the worst.  I guess my body was really unhappy that I was doing this again plus we only had 3 stops on the way up and the next climb seemed just as miserable with a moment when I thought I would need to stop again to rest.  But I made it to the next room where we sat for some more information on the tower and the clock and the bells.

But again, all too soon, we are back in the tower and climbing  to the clock faces where we walk behind the faces and can see where the hands are.  There are these huge light bulbs behind them now but in the old days, all the clock faces were lit by gas jets behind them and some poor sod had to climb up there every day to light all the gas jets from the top of each clock face to the bottom.  What a miserable job that must have been and dangerous!   Now there is a constant problem from birds wanting to sit on the hands.  Way back when, a bunch of starlings sat on the hand and messed up the time.  Now there is a man with a hawk that flies regularly around the tower to scare off the pigeons.  Wish we could have seen him.

Finally up just a few more flights to the mechanical room where the clock mechanism actually is and we watch it work for the 11:45 chime of the clock.  Such a magnificent piece of work and such precision from the late 1800’s.  To this day, the timing is controlled by adding pennies or taking away pennies from the mechanism to make it a tiny bit faster or slower so that it is exact and doesn’t lose or gain any time.  It is quite noisy to watch the “trains” work (the bells and clock mechanisms and weight mechanisms are called trains) but so amazing too.  I don’t understand the making of watches and clocks but this is truly a work of wonder and art to make something as large as the clock faces in the tower and have them be so precise.

Last year, they abseiled down from the bell room to clean the clock faces.  they only do that about every 7 years and I forgot it was that rare so forgot to go to London to watch them.  poo on me for missing that.  Used to, the wouldn’t stop the clock and the men cleaning would have to be careful to watch out for the hands moving as they cleaned the faces.  Now they stop one side for one day and the men are able to clean the clock faces in four days.

Finally to the top bell room.  What a view from all sides and how lovely inside too with the massive bells.  Big Ben is 13 1/2 tons.  The other bells are chime bells and all smaller but still nothing one could have in your home!  We get ear plugs to put in and a few words on the bells and told where to watch as the chimes start in a couple of minutes.  The guides count down for us and we hear the grinding of the mechanism start and see the first bell hammer clang down for the chimes.  It plays the bells in the familiar chimes and then the huge hammer of Big Ben falls for the first ring of twelve.  it is a massive hammer and a massive bell and it reverberates the entire platform and up through your shoes and you can feel the power of the bell and hammer.  As the last tone strikes and starts to die away, you can put your hands on the girders and still feel them vibrating.   It was such a wondrous experience and so marvelous.   We have a few minutes to look out the sides and I notice a couple standing off by themselves and he is presenting her with a ring!  WOW!  They got engaged at the top of Big Ben Tower!  Bet there are not many who can say that.

Going down is so much easier with just one stop at the room where we stopped first for some final information and a brochure that says we have climbed.  Then down to the bottom, back under the street, back to Portcullis House and get our bags and turn in our lanyards and done now with the brilliant experience that comes from patience with your MP and knowing that you can do this.  Our legs are wobbly and like jelly for most of the rest of the day but we still manage to spend a bit of time just wandering around the Thames and appreciating that we have had such a wonderful opportunity to live in England for awhile.  Yowzer, Yowzer but we are one lucky and amazing couple!

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