Of all the must-see London landmarks Big Ben is one of the most instantly recognisable, towering over the Houses of Parliament and synonymous with the nation’s culture and traditions.
- Listen to the famous bell chime on the hour.
- See all the intricate mechanics which ensure the continued precision of Big Ben.
- Walk around the interior of the clock tower and see behind all four of the clock faces.
What to See and Do
There are no famous chimes without the workings of one of the world’s most reliable clocks. You will see the intricate mechanism of the weight-driven clock which needs winding up three times a week. At the back of the mechanism is the pendulum which sets the clock’s ticking speed. Note the system of coins used to keep the clock in time, a system passed down from the original clock keepers.
Although the whole clock tower has come to be called Big Ben, it was originally the bell which was given this name. By heading up to the belfry you will have the unique chance of seeing this famous bell up close. The main Big Ben bell chimes only on the hour and with ear protectors to hand you can enjoy the thrill of hearing its famous sound from just a few feet away. As you walk around the belfry the views across London are spectacular.
In 2012 the clock tower housing Big Ben changed name to the Queen Elizabeth tower to mark the Queen’s Diamond jubilee. Before heading to the belfry you can walk around the inside perimeter of the tower. You can visit each of the four clock faces you only usually get to see see from afar down on the London streets. Note the light bulbs on the wall behind each clock face which allow for the spectacular lighting effect at night.
Houses of Parliament
The clock tower housing Big Ben is located at the north end of the Houses of Parliament. The seat of British Government, the Houses of Parliament are steeped in history and audio and guided tours will lead you around some of the most important areas in these famous buildings. See the debating chambers and lobbies as well as St Stephen’s Hall, before heading on to the historic Westminster Hall with its incredible hammer-beam roof.
Did You Know: (5 interesting facts!)
- Although known everywhere as Big Ben the original official name for the bell was the Great Bell.
- It is believed the bell is named after the first Commissioner of Public Works Sir Benjamin Hall, or after a champion heavyweight boxer called Benjamin Caunt.
- The bell weighs a whopping 13.7 tons and is 2.2 meters tall and 2.7 meters in diameter.
- In August 1949 a flock of starlings landed and perched on one of the minute hands, making the clock lose nearly five minutes of time.
- The clock tower is leaning, though not quite like the one at Pisa, as it is at about 0.26 degrees and no problems from this are foreseen for the tower for thousands of years.
- September 1843 Foundation for the new clock tower laid.
- August 1856 Big Ben bell cast in Stockton-on-Tees by Warners of Norton and shipped to London by sea.
- 1859 Construction of the clock tower completed, the bell having been winched into the belfry in October 1858.
- July 1859 Bell chimes for the first time but it becomes cracked in September and repairs meant it did not ring out regularly until 1862.
- 1923 Big Ben’s chimes are broadcast to the public for the first time on New Years eve by BBC Radio.
- 1939 For the duration of the second world war the clock tower dials are not illuminated in order to comply with the black-out regulations.
- 1941 Bombing raid hits Parliament, with damage to the roof and dials on the clock tower housing Big Ben.
- 1976 Mechanical failure results in serious damage to the clock with Big Ben silent for nine months.
- May 2009 Big Ben celebrated its 150th anniversary.
- 2017 Conservation work begins to help preserve Queen Elizabeth tower, the clock and the Great Bell.
Facilities and Accessibility
There are 334 steps in the Queen Elizabeth clock tower which take you up to view the clock, the mechanism and the bell. As part of the ongoing conservation work, a lift will be installed to improve accessibility to some areas of the clock tower. Tours of the clock tower are open to UK residents who must book through their local MP or a member of the House of Lords.
Refreshments for visitors can be found at the Jubilee café off Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament. The café offers a selection of hot drinks plus sandwiches, pastries and cakes. Next to the café is the Jubilee shop which is open to visitors to the Houses of Parliament and is the place to buy your souvenirs and gifts commemorating your visit.