The first in a periodic series of how to get into places you might not be aware you can visit – either on your own, or by clubbing together a group of people.
Parliament – technically, the Palace of Westminster – is a rather odd building in that it despite the security, it is actually a public building which you are free to enter, within some limits. For example, you can visit the House of Commons and watch the debates if you want, although the queue can be rather long on Prime Ministers Questions, and MPs guests get first dibs at the tickets.
During the summer, there are the series of excellent tours of the building – which you have to pay for, but are really worth it. You can also ask your MP for a visit – but frankly you might be better sticking to the summer tours unless you have a specific need to visit your MP as well.
However, little known about – is the ability to go on a tour of the Clock Tower and stand next to the iconic Big Ben bell as it strikes the hours.
BTW – despite what some people (and books) will say, the clock and the tower are not called St Stephen’s Tower – its official name is indeed, The Clock Tower.
A tour starts with the usual security checks, then once though that, just outside the Great Hall there is a small sign marking the spot as a the meeting point for Clock Tower Tours. At the appointed time, your guide will turn up and take you round the exterior of the building (look carefully and you might see the modern stairs down to an underpass to the new Portcullis House on the other side of the road) and you will find yourself standing in front of a small wooden door.
Here your climb begins.
What a lot of people are not aware of is that there is actually a small room about half way up the tower, and here you can rest for a short period and also leave any bags or coats you might have. Then off again, up, up and up the tower, going round the central space where the bell, Big Ben was raised up. It’s not scary by my standards (and I am a bit wobbly with heights) as you are on a stone staircase and iron railings.
At some point you will go through another tiny door and suddenly you are standing behind the famous clock face!
The lighting for the clock face is actually quite interesting – being modern, rather expensive light bulbs, but it was originally gas lit and you will see the ladder built into the wall which someone climbed every evening to light the gas lamps by hand.
Round you go three faces of the tower and then up yet another flight of stairs into the mechanism room where the original clock is still working. Yes, you will see the famous old currency coins which still are used to balance the clock timekeeping – and there are a few signs noted around noting the time the clock broke on the evening of 5th August 1976 and sent shrapnel around the room at high velocity. Fortunately, no one was in the room at the time.
Depending on the tour, you will probably get there about 15 minutes before the hour so can see the clock mechanism in action as the clock strikes the quarter hours on the bells above.
Now, the really exciting bit (if you are not already excited), a short climb up another flight of stairs – and into the open area above the clock where the bells are mounted – including in the very center of the room, Big Ben itself. You might also notice if you look for it, the BBC microphone which broadcasts Big Ben live as it strikes on New Years Eve.
As the time approaches, prepare as Big Ben gets ready to strike the hours – and then with a heart lurching moment the quarter bells will start their peal. As you calm down from that shock, you can prepare for the main action as the hammer lifts and strikes Big Ben itself to mark the hours. Obviously, if you are lucky to get a noon tour, you get the full twelve dongs!
Alas, officially – no photography is allowed, although once I was permitted by one chap who took a group of us up there, but ironically my camera broke!
Having experienced this – there is the climb back down to the ground and there the tour ends. You can usually grab a coffee in the undercroft beside Westminster Hall afterwards – and then it is off home after one of the more unusual and memorable events you are likely to go on.
Of course, you’ll want to know how to arrange this?
Tours are basically in the gift of your local MP – so the easiest way to arrange a visit is to write short email/letter to your MP and ask to be added to the waiting list for an available Clock Tower tour. Most MPs are quite receptive to such requests, and some will also try to meet you after the tour (if they are not in committees etc). Tours are only available Mon-Fri and there is a bit of a waiting list, so you will have enough notice to organise a day off work.
I find the best way to contact my MP is via the excellent They Work for You website – which will send a letter (actually an email or fax) on your behalf. Normally, replies are by email from the MP’s assistant, then followed by by a formal invitation on House of Commons’ rather posh cream paper.
(if you want a tourist momento, there is a small shop by the main lobby hall you can visit after your climb)