BONG. BONG. BONG. Throughout central London you can hear it chime the hours and quarter hours. It's Big Ben, of course, the massive bell that is located high up in the tower attached to the Houses of Parliament in London. The 13.7-tonnes (15 tons) of cast metal has been bonging out the hour since 1859 — more or less continually. (The quarter hours are rung by four distinct, smaller bells, ranging in size from 1 tonne to 4 tonnes.)
Big Ben is a nickname of what's official called the "Great Bell".
The tower (formerly called simply "The Clock Tower", but now somewhat boringly renamed "The Elizabeth Tower") looks like a bit of an appendage to the Houses of Parliament, because it was, in a way. After the old Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834 a new parliament building was designed, but the architect neglected to include a clock tower, so a second designer, Augustus Pugin, was brought in to tack one on.
The tower and the bell were built with lovely and traditional British incompetence. The first bell was cast in 1856, shipped to London on boat, and pulled across Westminster Bridge by sixteen horses. White horses, no less. Before being installed the bell was tested for just about a year… and then it cracked. No one would accept responsibility. The designer blamed the bell maker, and vice versa.
A new bell was ordered from a new foundry. It weighed about two and a half tonnes less than the first bell, but when the time came to install, the bell was found to be too big to pull up into the tower. It had to turned on its side and pulled up slowly.
Starting in October 1858 the new Big Ben chimed out over London… until July 1859, when it, too, cracked. It wasn't until four years later that the Royal Astronomer devised a way to make the bell ring out again. (Why they needed an astronomer for the task is a story not told.) It's been tolling the hours ever since 1863.
By the way, The Clock Tower itself kept up tradition with its bit of incompetence. The construction was five years behind schedule and, when it came time to install the clock, it was found that the tower had been built too small and had to be modified. Finally, it was discovered that the hands of the clock were too heavy and wouldn't move. They had to be replaced with smaller and lighter hands!
You can visit The Clock Tower and climb the 334 spiral stone steps to Big Ben, but only if —
One more snag — the Tower is undergoing a massive renovation starting in early 2017 and no tours will be available for at least the following three years. You can, if you wish, book a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament.
As we've told you before, the best way to experience London is on a tour with an expert guide, and this tour is a really good one — so popular that it's very likely to sell out. Get up close with Big Ben when you get inside the Houses of Parliament for a 90-minute guided tour. (You don't climb up The Clock Tower, but you do learn a lot about it.)
This tour kick off at the lovely and famous Westminster Abbey, where you can walk down the aisle and pretend you're William or Kate. You have a chance to stroll through the Abbey gardens and visit the graves of Isaac Newton, Charles, Dickens, and William Pitt. Then, over at the Parliament you get a real sense of British governance and see Westminster Hall, the Lords' Chamber, and the Queen's Robing Room.
Terrific guide! One of the best I've ever had. Very thorough. Filled us in on the Abbey as well as the historical/religious/political environment in London throughout. Because of the crowds, it really is best to have a guide at Westminster if you want to learn and see as much as possible."
– 5-Star Review
We also like this walking tour that focuses on the history in Westminster, the part of London where you find Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Did you know that this district was the target of heavy bombing during World War II, possibly because of the espionage and other war-related work that was underway there?
This activity focuses on the Second World War and the impact it had on the central London district of Westminster, home of the British government. You pay your respects at the statue of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. After touring the historic sights of the area you go underground — to the War Rooms, from where Winston Churchill lead his country during the war.
The tour guide was excellent and extremely knowledgable. The tour was timed out well and very thorough. Even though I have been to London several times… I would highly recommend this tour to anyone, as I learned so much!"
– 5-Star Review
London is a great city to tour by bike. Although it's big, London is relatively flat and the historical attractions are largely located in the central area. Consequently, we like this bike tour that takes you to Big Ben & the Houses of Parliament, but also to Chinatown, Hyde Park, even out to Notting Hill.
The tour leader knows the city inside and out, imparting to you a real sense of what makes London tick. The bike tour tickets are sent by email so you can use your mobile phone to show your ticket to the guide.
We've got one more activity for you that revolves around Big Ben. As the city comes to life in the morning you'll be touring the historic sites of London. Leave from Victoria Station and head for Westminster and Parliament Square to take in all the important sights located there — the church of Westminster Abbey, the Parliament Buildings, and, of course, Big Ben.
Next it's over to Kensington Palace, where Diana lived. You also take in Royal Albert Hall. Then the jewel in the crown of your morning — St James Park, Buckingham Palace, and the legendary Changing of the Guards. At the end, you're dropped off at Trafalgar Square, where you can explore more of the heart of London.