My kids were devastated to learn they would not be joining us to tour the inside of Big Ben. And who can blame them? Peter Pan, Wendy, and her brothers rest on the clock’s minute hand on their way to Neverland. The Great Mouse Detective and Cars 2 feature epic escapes from inside the clock’s mechanisms. Thanks to their stellar Disney education, Big Ben was the only thing they wanted to see the first time we visited London. And now mommy and daddy were going with out them. But rules are rules and children under the age of 11 are not permitted on the tour of Elizabeth Tower, so we giddily spent a day exploring London without our little entourage.
First things first. Technically, we toured Elizabeth Tower—not Big Ben. Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell that rings inside the tower. Up until 2012, the tower’s official name was quite simply the Clock Tower. It was changed to Elizabeth Tower in 2012 in honor of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Fittingly done because the tower at the southwest end of Parliament was called King’s Tower until Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 when it was renamed Victoria Tower.
There was a 40% chance of rain the morning we headed into London. But the sun was just coming up in our area as we headed to the train and I decided an umbrella was unnecessary. I should have known better in England. If it can rain in London, it will rain. Luckily, most of our journey was by train and the Tube. It was just a matter of feet from exiting the Westminster station to arriving at Portcullis House where our tour would begin.
We arrived 45-minutes early. I think we’re so used to being late with the kids we forgot that we’re capable of being on time without them! That gave us plenty of time to explore Portcullis House before gathering for our tour at 10:45. Portcullis House is on Great George Street opposite Elizabeth Tower. You’ve likely walked right past it after crossing Westminster Bridge or emerged from below it upon exiting the Westminster tube station. It consists of offices and meeting rooms for members of parliament and a large cafeteria. Visitors can tour the outer hallways and even sit in on sessions open to the public. The halls are lined with paintings and portraits of former MPs and prime ministers. My favorites included artist Gerard Scarfe’s painting House of Commons 1965 and Phil Hale’s rather ominous portrait of former prime minister Tony Blair.
After enjoying our silent exploration of the artwork lining the first floor’s committee and meeting rooms, we headed back to the lobby to await our tour. Including us, our tour consisted of nine people plus two tour guides. We could bring our jackets and a bottle of water on the tour. Purses, cameras, and phones were not allowed and were collected and locked in a cabinet before the tour began. We fully expected to be the only Americans, but were surprised when a young American college student joined our tour. As part of an exchange program with her university she was interning with a British MP for the semester.
Aside from the college student, we were a solid decade younger than the other tour participants. Any lingering concern I’d had about slowing the group down because of my pregnancy quickly vanished. My doctor had given me the go-ahead and while climbing the tower pregnant is discouraged, it is only prohibited for women in their third trimester. I was just beginning my second trimester with no tell-tale bump to give others concern.
We made our way underneath the road to the entrance of Elizabeth Tower. And then I saw the stairs. These weren’t 12th century slippery, uneven, spiraling castle steps. These were level and modern-looking. Gazing up between the spiraling stairs was a bit dizzying, but nothing like the crazy ancient castle steps I’d climbed multiple times towards the end of my last pregnancy.
We climbed 114 steps to the first landing. I know this because I counted each one—aloud. The problem with finally touring without kids? The quirky behavior that with your kids makes you look like a cool mom is just odd or obnoxious without them. I know this now. But I’m telling myself that the older woman trailing behind us may have actually appreciated my counting and announcing how close we were to each new level.
The first climb is the largest number of steps you’ll climb at once, so if 334 steps seem daunting, know that it is broken down into multiple parts. Seats line a wall of the small room at the first level. A huge Big Ben and the Clock Tower timeline and diagram lines the opposite wall. “Ear defenders” also known as ear plugs, were handed out while the tour guide discussed the history of the tower.
At precisely 11:15, while still seated on the first level, one bell chimed. We then climbed another 68 steps. Another bench lined the wall and we sat down to learn about the clock’s mechanisms. While the guide talked, a noticeable rumbling sound was growing louder within the tower. We learned the weights churning in the weight shaft create this noise. The weights drop so the bells can ring, and from within the tower, it’s a very noisy affair. But outside the tower it’s inaudible—only the chiming bells are heard.
99 steps later and we found ourselves in a room behind the clock face. It’s a narrow (maybe 4-feet wide?) hallway. On the left is the enclosed weight shaft with 28 giant light bulbs lining each wall. To the right are the clock faces. We entered at the south-facing clock room and would walk counter-clockwise to view the remaining identical clock faces. There were no seats on this level, but, if needed, we could sit along the curved clock base in any of the four hallways. The half past chimes sounded while we toured the clock faces followed by the disconcerting sounds of a loud chain rattling as the clock mechanism above us worked its magic.
We climbed nine additional steps to another room. This one was by far the most intriguing. Five tons of giant clock mechanism are housed inside. But I may have been a little disappointed it wasn’t larger than life as depicted in Cars 2. Still, it was impressive. The tour is perfectly timed so that we were still in the room to see the mechanisms work as the clock chimed at 11:45.
Finally, we made our way up the final 44 steps to see Big Ben. The 13.5 ton Great Bell is not inside another enclosed room. The tower continues overhead but all four sides are exposed to the elements. Protective railing lines the perimeter to ensure no gusts of wind blow anyone over. It was freezing cold. The rain had stopped, but water still dripped throughout the belfry. Our jackets had remained on the entire tour as the tower was also cold. But now as the wind whipped our faces and water dripped from above, I wished I’d booked a summer tour. On the street below we could hear protesters outside parliament shouting and heckling while David Cameron was responding to the Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament that morning. As the clock ticked closer to noon we were strongly encouraged to dig the ear defenders out of our pockets and make use of them. First, the four smaller quarter bells play. Then at noon the hammer strikes Big Ben twelve times. The noise was deafening, even with ear plugs. But it was also surreal. Here we were above London, at the top of the city’s most iconic landmark, watching Big Ben chime for the entire city to hear.
The tour of Elizabeth Tower is free to residents of the UK over the age of 10. To schedule a tour you must contact your local MP about six months in advance of the date you’d like to visit. More information is available on Parliament’s official website. The tour lasts just over an hour and is definitely not to be missed if you’re living in the UK!
Not a resident of the UK or not sure you’ll be able to take the tour? That’s alright, there’s a great 10-minute video tour you can watch instead!