Robert, aged 10 says: Last week I had one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had in London and, if you’ve read the name of this post, you’ll know that it was having a tour of Big Ben. We were in the iconic clock tower for around an hour and the 60 minute tour included walking up 334 steps, watching all the machinery move in order to ring the bells, plus standing less that a metre away from the Big Ben when it rang for ten o’clock.
Jess, aged 14, writes: We walked into the building at around quarter to nine, and had to go through security before we could get inside. This was an experience in itself, as I felt strangely important! Soon, a man named Tim gathered the group together, gave us lanyards, and outlined what was going to happen in the tour. The tour was comprised of around six groups, and there were about fifteen of us altogether. We would walk up the Elizabeth Tower to the Belfry (stopping to catch our breath on the way), learn how the clock works, and eventually see Big Ben being rung at 10am.
We were escorted to the base of the tower, and began by walking up around 100 steps. The spiral staircase was relatively steep, but the journey only took a few minutes, so we sat down to regain our energy in the first room, while Tim told us the history of the tower. Every single room in the tower is “U” shaped, as there are three large weights running through a shaft in the centre of the tower. These weights control the clock and the bells, and it was pretty cool to know that these were right behind us!
We learnt that Big Ben was built after a fire in the Palace of Westminster in 1834, and a competition was held to find the best design for the new building. Architect Charles Barry’s entry (which included a prominent clock tower) won, leading onto a competition to find a design for a really accurate clock. The best clocks in those times were accurate to one minute, and the architects wanted it to be accurate to one second, which caused a lot of problems. The stories Tim told us were fascinating, and there were many more than the ones I’ve written here…
Robert says: After another, shorter journey up the spiral staircase we opened a second door and what we saw when we walked inside was breathtaking. We were looking directly at one of the giant white clock faces near to the top of the tower. The whole circle was nearly three times my height and as it was a sunny day, we could clearly see the minute hand moving slowly every two seconds. We looked at all four clock faces but you can’t see through them and we were also told about the giant light bulbs suspended on all of the walls to light the clock faces up in the night time. Some parts of the clock face were an orange colour as they were quite new and in each clock face there was one part that could open and you could see outside.
Jess writes: Next, we made our way up to the machinery room. For someone interested in robotics and mechanics, I was utterly enthralled – the giant gears were arranged in a complex way and I really wanted to find out how they worked. Luckily, Tim was there to explain. We were shown the pendulum, which swings every two seconds to affect the minute hand on the clock. We were all amazed by the stack of coins above the pendulum, which help to regulate the speed at which it is swinging. Adding or removing one coin will change the speed of the hand by 0.4 seconds in a day.
Soon, it was quarter to ten, so we got to be inside the room while the bells were going off. This was a brilliant sight, and we loved hearing the weights drop and seeing parts of the machinery spinning right in front of us!
Robert says: For the final part of the tour we walked up the last few steps and entered the belfry. The wind was blowing in our faces, we could see a beautiful view of the London skyline, and right in the middle of the room was a massive bell, Big Ben itself. It was surrounded by four smaller bells which are needed as Big Ben only rings every hour. We were told that the bell we were looking at was actually the second Big Ben. The government wanted the bell to be exactly 14 stone and make a E natural note when rung. Unfortunately, when the first bell was created, it weighed the right amount but made the wrong note. The size of the hammer hitting the bell affects the sound, so to make an E natural they kept on increasing the hammer. Eventually the hammer was so big that it cracked the bell in half so they had to make a new one.
The second Big Ben was paraded through the streets of London by horses to get to the tower where it was then hauled up by six men, which took over 35 hours. When hit, the new Big Ben made an E natural note, but just three months after it started being used it got a crack. Luckily, the crack didn’t go all the way around so they put a hole on either side to stop the crack spreading. This meant that the bell still didn’t make the right sound.
After the explanation we put on our ear plugs and waited for ten o’clock. What we heard next was the amazing but also the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. After the four smaller bells rung we saw the big black hammer hit Big Ben and we heard the noise which thousands of other people heard, a massive ringing sound just we heard it a hundred times louder. After the bell was hit ten times everything was vibrating, we took one last look at the scene that surrounded us then started the tiresome journey back down.
Jess writes: Soon, our tour was over. We had all had such a fantastic time, and it was such an intriguing and unique opportunity to learn all about the Big Ben. Not only had I really enjoyed the tour, I also felt as though I had been a part of something really special. I definitely recommend going on a tour of this building.
We all loved our tour of Big Ben and would highly recommend it. It is only available for UK residents, and you need to apply via your local MP (we just emailed). There are tours three times a day, at 9am, 11am and 2pm and it really is a fantastic experience, especially being inside the tower and seeing the back side of the clock, and then hearing bells ring from inside the belfry. Tours are free, but you have to be over 11 (Robert is very nearly 11 and we told them this in advance!) and be able to walk up and down the 334 steps. However, you need to hurry as Big Ben is being closed for three to four years at the end of this year for renovations!