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#125 Big Ben Tour

October 13, 2011

It's a shit pic, but a) you know what Big Ben looks like and b) OMFG RAINBOW.

Let’s get this out of the way first. Please say this in a satirical ‘backwards man’ voice, with your tongue pressing your bottom lip out: “ITS NOT THE TOWER, TOWER IS NOT CALLED BIG BEN OH NO IS THE BIG BELL AT TOP OF TOWER IF YOU NOT KNOW THAT YOU SPACKLEHEADED HUR HUR.”

Clever you! You fucker.

There, that’s better. So! Anyone with UK citizenship can write to their MP and request a trip up the Westminster Clock Tower. The tour starts in the airy, defiantly contemporary Portcullis House, and takes you under Bridge Street to the edge of the hilariously-coiffured Houses of Parliament.

The tour is a trip into the Victorian mind, really. The Clock Tower represents mid-Victorian silliness, grandeur and ingenuity at their height. The further up we go, the more we realise that this really is just a giant grandfather clock. The three pendulums extend all the way down the hollow centre of the tower – the cramped staircase only takes up a corner of the space. We pass locked wooden doors that lead to now-unused rooms (“You can’t have them as offices because of health and safety – there’s no lift and no loos.”)

With around 300 steps up, it’s a good thing we stop off in the middle for a bit of a history lesson from our informed and enthusiastic guide. Like any old and hallowed functional area, the clock tower has accrued its own culture and mythology. You can still see the gas pipes where the lighters used to have to manually light every lamp to illuminate the faces. The pendulum is altered every day by adding old pennies to the mechanism – not for weight, but because they raise its centre of gravity, allowing the engineers to compensate for the vagaries of wind, air pressure and other weather-related phenomena. Did you know there are words to the chimes?

“Lord through this hour
Be thou our guide
So, by thy power
No foot shall slide”

Not very good words, but there they are, inspired by the Handel symphony “I Know My Redeemer Liveth”. Sing along next time!

We arrive at the belfry in time for the three o’clock chime. Like a lot of Victorian architecture, the belfry itself is strangely, reassuringly domestic. Big Ben himself commands the space, but around him everything feels comfortably like a rather nice Victorian conservatory. Then you peep out of the wrought-iron window spaces and see London sprawling far below, and you gasp. Big Ben and his four ‘little’ chime bells are deafening at this proximity – you’re given earplugs to save you from his mighty bellow. He’s a pretty cool guy, is Big Ben, even though he has a small crack in him from over-enthusiastic hammering, back in the day.

After this, the clock mechanism itself is a bit of a disappointment. Far from the man-sized gears that Hollywood had led us to expect, it’s a modest 14-foot long collection of gears, levers and flywheels. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still hella steampunk. The longer you stare at the almost-unmoving mechanism, the more subtly flowing intricacy you notice. Gears turn, but too slowly to spot at first. Four geared rods extend out of the room in each direction, powering the hands on each of the four clock faces. The minute hands move every two seconds – the time it takes for the mighty pendulums to swing back and forth. It’s alive, thrumming quietly with steel and strength and precision.

Take the tour. It reminds you that while Parliament has never stopped coming up with over-time, over-budget, unfeasible, unwieldy, controversial and simply addle-brained grand schemes – sometimes it’s been worth it.

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