Tours of Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower

For millions of visitors the world over, London is represented by a single iconic building: Big Ben. Probably the most recognisable clock in the world, Big Ben in London has been ticking 16 stories above the street since May 1859 and boasts the largest four-faced chiming clock in the entire world! But perhaps it would surprise you to hear that although we all know Big Ben – this massive clock tower is actually officially named something completely different! Read on for some fascinating facts about this most beloved of London’s landmarks and learn how some of you can tour Big Ben.

 

 

TIP: There is loads more to tell you about Big Ben – but for more facts, anecdotes and little-known trivia, you’ll need to book yourself onto our Westminster (or All-In-One) tour to find out more!

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Where exactly is Big Ben located?

Big Ben is located in the City of Westminster in the heart of London.  Due to its central location, it is within walking distance to several other London attractions, such as Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, the London Eye, the Houses of ParliamentWestminster Abbey (read our tip on free entry) and many others.

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Where exactly is Big Ben located

 

The nearest Underground Station is Westminster (Circle, District and Jubilee lines).  You could also access Big Ben from Waterloo Station (Bakerloo, Northern, Waterloo and City and Jubilee lines).  We recommend that you use this Google map for directions to Big Ben from anywhere in London.

Why is Elizabeth Tower known as Big Ben?

Clock Tower – Big Ben is actually not the correct name for the clock tower. The clock tower now is known as the Queen Elizabeth II Tower, and was renamed for our monarch on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. Previously it was simply named ‘The Clock Tower.’

Bell – The largest bell inside the Queen Elizabeth II Tower is colloquially known as Big Ben. Strictly speaking, the name of the bell is The Great Bell, but Big Ben is the name used the world over (even by those of us who know better!).

Why Big Ben? Nobody knows exactly for sure but there are two likely sources: Perhaps it is in reference to Benjamin Hall, an MP who oversaw the installation of the Great Bell and was a rather rotund figure. Or maybe it is named after Benjamin Caunt, an English heavyweight boxing champion who was often known as Big Ben himself. This mystery will most likely never be solved!


TIP: There is loads more to tell you about Big Ben – but for more facts, anecdotes and little-known trivia, you’ll need to book yourself onto our Westminster (or All-In-One) tour to find out more!


Tours of Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower

Visiting Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower is possible, but only if guests fit a strict criteria and have contacted their MP or a member of the House of Lords to request a visit. Tours tend to be sold out for up to 6 months in advance so be prepared to wait a while!  More information can be found at their website.

A brief guideline of visitor criteria follows:

  1. All visitors allowed onto Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben tours must be UK residents. There are no exceptions to this.
  2. Visitors must be over 11 years old.
  3. Visitors must be able to climb all 334 steps unaided without assistance.
  4. Visitors with heart-related illness or who are in the later stages of pregnancy will not be allowed.
  5. Visitors must arrive with sensible footwear, or they will be declined their position on the tour.

CREATION

The Queen Elizabeth II Tower stands in Westminster, connected to the Palace of Westminster – which is more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. After the old Palace of Westminster was lost in a terrible fire in 1834, a new building was designed to sit in its’ place, and hold the new Houses of Parliament. The clock tower was a notable part of the design of the new Palace as imagined by architect Charles Barry. Barry knew he wanted a clock tower as part of his new Palace, but he did not actually design it himself.

The tower and clock itself was designed by noted architect August Welby Northmore Pugin, who was asked for his assistance by Charles Barry. Therefore it was Pugin himself who actually designed the tower, using his signature gothic revival style. Before he died, Pugin is quoted as saying that his assigning and building of the tower was the “hardest [he’d] ever worked in [his] life.”

Big Ben in LondonBELLS

Although ‘Big Ben’ is the most famous bell in the tower, there are actually 5 bells total inside the belfry. Ben is the largest and four smaller bells ring every 15 minutes. It is said there are words to go along with the quarter-hour chimes, based off of a Bible passage (Psalm 37:23-24) as follows: All through this hour/Lord be my guide/And by Thy power/No foot shall slide.

Big Ben specifically is only rung at the top of every hour. A mechanical process triggered by the clock dials raises a hammer which is then dropped onto Ben to make the chimes. For those wishing to set their clocks, note it is the FIRST chime of Big Ben that marks the exact time.

The Great Bell was cast in April 1858 at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (also responsible for The Liberty Bell in the United States) and weighs in at 13.76 tones. Originally Big Ben was the largest bell in the British Isles until Great Paul – hanging in St. Paul’s Cathedral – was cast in 1881.

FACTS & FIGURES

  • The entire Queen Elizabeth II Tower is 315ft (96m) tall.
  • Each clock face stands exactly 180ft (54.9m) off the ground.
  • Each dial is nearly 23ft (7m) in diameter.
  • Each dial holds over 300 individual pieces of frosted glass.
  • The minute hands are each just over 13ft (4.2m) long.
  • Despite appearing straight, the Tower actually is tilting 9.1in (230mm) to the north-west.
  • Out of 650 MPs, 331 voted to approve the name change of the Clock Tower to the Queen Elizabeth Tower – in reference to the fact that the tower on the other side of Parliament was renamed the Victoria Tower in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

London Big Ben SILENCE OF THE CHIMES

Although Big Ben has been praised throughout its’ history for accurately keeping time throughout the decades – including during the Blitz in WWII – the chimes have been silenced on occasion, a few examples of which follow:

During WWI the clock was silenced for two years, and the clock dials were darkened, to prevent detection by German zeppelin craft.

On New Year’s Eve 1962 the cold weather actually froze the hands of the clock, causing the pendulum mechanism to fault meaning the New Year was rung in 10 minutes late!

In 1967 the clock experienced its first – and so far only – break down when the air speed regulator broke. Over 9 months the chimes were silenced around 26 days for repairs.

As an mark of respect, the chimes were silenced during the funeral of Winston Churchill. The same protocol was taken during the funeral of Baroness Margaret Thatcher in 2013.

 

 

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