Friday, March 26, 2010

Climbing Big Ben

Like the Eiffel Tower to Paris or the Statue of Liberty to New York, Big Ben is the most recognized symbol of London. Nothing else gives me quite the same 'Ahhh, I'm in London' feeling as to see it from Trafalgar Square, or over the river at night. Standing beneath it, in Parliament Square, I'm in the very center of London, its government, its history.

I've felt this ever since we first moved here; this is one of my favorite photos I've ever taken, and it's from our second day in the city.

I happen to be going on about this now, though, because this morning Teriann and I took a tour of the clock tower. We climbed all the way up to the inside of the clock faces and then up to the belfry, where at 10 a.m. sharp, Big Ben himself (the English are always keen to point out that, technically, 'Big Ben' only refers to the massive bell that tolls the hours — not the tower itself) rang out ten times while we stood about ten feet away.

The tour itself was absolutely incredible. The views from the Belfry were outstanding. Standing behind the faces of the world's most iconic clock was just as wonderful as I had imagined. And it was all made just that little bit better by the fact that this is one of the little benefits that comes with living here. You see, no tourists are allowed — one has to live in Britain to take the tour, and tickets are obtained through your Member of Parliament. The one downside, though, is that we weren't allowed to take pictures. Sorry — I'll have to stick with the stock photos from Parliament's website.

The tour started with the massive climb (we've done far worse — it wasn't too narrow) to the clock faces.

From there, it was up to the belfry. The guide gave out earplugs, and I had mine at the ready just in case, but I figured, how many times in my life will I hear the Westminster chimes from inside the clock tower? So I braved it, and what a sound. It was so loud, and I was so close, that I actually felt the initial strikes. It's been so rare that I've ever had that sensation that I don't really know what to compare it to. When you turn up the bass on a powerful stereo, sometimes you can feel it in your chest; but the bell was that loud across a wide and complex range of frequencies. It was exhilarating. Teriann and I were in the bell tower of St. Mark's in Venice when that started pealing, but this was much more intense.

We took one more look around at the view and headed down to the clock room. I knew that the clock was about 150 years old, but somewhere in the back of my head I'd always assumed that somewhere in the past century and a half, it had been updated to a modern system. Wrong. It's the same clock mechanism today that started ticking in 1859. And it's accurate to within a half a second.

It's kept that accurate by a team of clockmakers — one of whom was on hand to tell us that the first toll of our unforgettable 10:00 a.m. had been a quarter of a second late — who still look after it in much the same way they would have in Victorian times. They replace springs and tighten bolts; the clock mechanism itself, which is driven by a massive weight hanging through the length of the hollow tower, must still be wound by hand. If they didn't tend to this regularly, the weight would reach the ground in about three days and the clock would stop.

This website is pretty good... there's a video about the clock tower, more pictures of the inside, etc.

All in all, an unforgettable morning in the midst of a week otherwise crowded with work, work, and work.

Before I sign off, here are a few more of our favorite pics of Big Ben taken over the last year and a half.

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