Climbing Big Ben

Did you know that if you are a British citizen you can climb up Big Ben? Or rather you can climb up the Elizabeth Tower and visit Big Ben. It’s your right, without payment, gratis, absolutely free. And having seen it on the telly this New Year's Eve, why not make a resolution to actually visit it in person.

All you have to do is to email your MP and simply ask them to book you in for a tour. Then on the date that you are given you just truck up at Portcullis House, the contemporary building over the road from the Palace of Westminster, and you’re in.

And it is spectacularly well worth it.

For starters there is the thrill of being on the Parliamentary Estate itself, getting past all the security into the heart of our democracy. You feel this the moment you are ushered into the tunnel that connects Portcullis House to the Houses of Parliament proper, the same tunnel that scores of MPs bustle along when the Division Bell calls them to vote. And you certainly feel it as the guide unlocks a tiny and unassuming door at the base of  Elizabeth Tower and you start the climb up one of the world’s most iconic buildings.

And climb you must for there are no lifts to ascend the tower, merely many, many, many steps. There are stops on the way up to catch your breath and listen to the history of both the clock and Big Ben itself and eventually you reach the clock faces. Sandwiched between those famous milk white panes of glass that form the four clock faces and the clock house itself you will find tingles start to replace your exhaustion.

From the faces you go into the clock housing and there stands the gravity-powered clock that drives the hands and the chimes themselves. Gravity powered because there is no engine or battery to keep the clock accurate, simply the power created by weights dropping down the centre of the tower itself. In many ways it’s simply a very, very large Grandfather clock.

You will be in the clock house as the bells above (but not Big Ben), chime quarter to the hour, and you start to realise why they have given you ear plugs, because even a floor below the belfry the power of the bells rumbles through your entire body. From the clock house you have 15 minutes to climb up and into the belfry itself and prepare for the series of notes you have known since childhood to be rung out. With luck yours will be a noon tour and you will feel the full force of Big Ben being struck by its hammer, much as it does at midnight on New Year's Eve to tell the world that a new year is upon us. I challenge you to maintain an entirely dry eye in what is a very strangely emotional experience.

Once done you descend the stairs, exit through the little door, pass back through the tunnel and emerge onto the street to look up at the clock in almost disbelief that you were, until very recently, up there yourself.

Interested, then simply email your MP’s office and ask them. Details for you MP can be found here.

Climbing Big Ben


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