Looking at the pamphlet, you could be forgiven for thinking it is the only one of its kind. This, the pamphlet decrees, is The Clock Tower. Up at the top, there’s The Great Clock and The Great Bell (and four lesser bells).
This is, of course, The Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminstser. The Great Clock is a magnificently accurate beast, to within a second a day. The Great Bell is known, to the proles and peasants, as Big Ben. The origins of its nickname are shrouded in mystery. Most with an interest suggest it’s named after Sir Benjamin Hall, Chief Commissioner of Works at the time of installation. Those with a more left-field opinion claim a heavyweight, bare-knuckle boxer, Benjamin Caunt, known as ‘Big Ben’, was the inspiration. Anyway, considering they’re both dead, it doesn’t really matter.
Somewhat incongruously, the meeting point for tour is in Portcullis House — at the other side of Bridge Street from the Palace of Westminster. It’s a reasonably new building, in service for less than a decade, but manages to rate ‘G’ for energy efficiency. That’s on a scale of A to G, by the way. With ‘A’ being the best. What it loses in heat, however, it more than makes up for with its ruthlessly efficient security team. Luton Airport could learn a thing or two from those lads and lasses, I tell you.
Two members of staff escort groups up the Tower. We had Tim, a besuited, lanyard-sporting tour guide, working alongside Sarah. She sported a Houses of Parliament cravat and carried a walkie-talkie. Clearly, this was not someone to cause trouble in front of.
Once all the paperwork was in order, we were taken down an escalator, under the road, and arrived at the base of the Clock Tower. Look out for the door of the ‘Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting’ around here. It’s a magnificent job title and even better place to have an office. Just between you and me, dear reader, it left me teetering on jealousy.
The initial ascent is of around one hundred stairs, in a windowless turret, running up one side of the tower. Fans of natural light and open space will appreciate the rest stop in the ‘Prison Room’. It’s in this malevolently-named place Tim chose to besiege with information and bequeath disposable earplugs (37dB NR!) with admirable aplomb. It’s also the first opportunity we had to hear (and feel) the huge weights of the tower’s various mechanisms drop down the central core. Boom!
Bags safely stowed in the Prison Room, time to move onwards and upwards. The next part of the ascent is very similar to the last, just with the added advantage of windows. Even if you can’t really stop to admire the view, the windows provide pleasing reassurance that you’ve not entered some sort of Escherian voodoo lounge.
Another short break followed by a further eighty or so steps takes you to the clock faces. A narrow corridor runs around the inside perimeter of the tower, passing directly behind each of the four. Since 1859, each face has been lit by at least three different sources. The capped off gas pipes and cold cathode warning signs hint at sources past, while 28-strong arrays of modern, long-life, energy-efficient, bulbs take on the mantle today.
The corridor behind the faces cocoons the clock room. The clock itself is a magnificent object, manufactured by Edward Dent and tended to by three staff horologists. The brass plaques shine. Its mechanisms move with grace. The majesty and elegance of the engineering captivate. The hypnotic rhythm of the pendulum entrance and calm. The transmission chains of cogs, wheels and axles which unfailingly move the clock hands each and every two seconds are a marvel in themselves. The whole room oozes with glory; this is some of the finest mechanical engineering in the world.
From the clock room, it’s another few steps to the belfry. It’s here that Bells 1 to 5 hang. Big Ben’s hammer is always poised, ready to drop its 200kg load on to the 14 tonne gong at precisely the right time. The surrounding, lesser, bells are a little more lackadaisical about such matters. They’re happy to appear within a few seconds of when they should, which is why there’s sometimes a gap between PM and the Six O’Clock News on BBC Radio 4. On a related note, the four microphones used for the live feed to the BBC are visible just above the door to the belfry. The sound in real life is very different to the sound of the radio; FM doesn’t convey the palpable rumble of the falling weights, nor the spine-juddering ratcheting of the brakes, nor the twenty-second-long, teeth-tingling, skull-rattling, reverberations.
I was standing three feet from Ben at precisely three o’clock on the 8th September, 2010. And I’ve got a certificate (and some used earplugs) to prove it.
UK citizens can (and really, really, should) obtain tickets by writing to their MP, specifying some suitable dates. Thanks to my local MP, Mary MacLeod, and her office for arranging the visit.