Big Ben – all you need to know… literally ~ 5 min read

Big Ben is one of the most famous landmarks not just in London, not just in the UK but in whole Europe. Nevertheless, the clock tower is widely misunderstood. Lets fix this! 😉 This article will lift the curtain of Big Ben and you will find out the Why, the When, the How and the Who.

Who is Big Ben?

Big Ben Curious pavel visit london travel sightseeing
Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament

Get ready for this one because the answer might shock you…
Big Ben is not the name of the tower, it is not the name of the dials or even the clock mechanism. Big Ben is the name of the bell inside the tower. Actually I am talking about the Great Bell. Yes, there is more than one. Except Big Ben, there are 4 small bells that are chiming each 15 minutes.
Renamed in 2012 to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the name of the tower is now Elizabeth Tower. Here’s another confusion… many people know that before 2012 the tower was named St. Stephen’s Tower. This name was used by journalists during the Victorian era but it was never an official one. In the past the tower was simply named the Clock Tower.

How Big Ben Got His Name?

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Benjamin Caunt

Now that we have established who Big Ben is, lets find out where this name came from. This simple question has a pretty simple answer- Nobody Knows for certain. There are just couple of theories and here they are:

  1. The bell was named after Benjamin Count who was a heavy-weight boxing champion. Big guy, big bell. That’s it. That’s all people know about this theory…
  2. The bell was named after Sir Benjamin Hall. Now this believe is more developed probably thanks to people’s imagination. One thing is for sure- he was a commissioner of work who was responsible for the bell while the tower was under construction. Some people say he was a big (fat) man, others say he was obsessed about the bell and was talking all the time about it. Another version is that his name was engraved on the bell which was tested outside the tower until they finish the construction of it. All the workers there, seeing the name, started calling the bell Big Ben. That story I believe the most because it was given to me by a member of staff who works in the tower as a tour guide.

Is Big Ben cracked?

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Big Ben

Before I answer this question for you, there is something you need to know. This is not the “original” Big Ben. As mentioned, the bell was tested next to the tower while the construction was taking place. One day, while testing the 16 tonnes bell, it cracked irreparably. The crack was about 1.2 meters. So they brought it at Whitechapel, melted it down and made a new bell, now 13.5 tonnes. Why this was not the original? Well, Benjamin’s name was engraved on the first bell, the one that cracked.
But the story doesn’t finish here. Shortly after the bell was installed in the tower, Big Ben cracks again. This time the crack is smaller but still concerns everybody. Lifting it up took them 30 hours and nobody knows what to do. Not risking anything, the bell stays silent for about 4 years. Eventually they come up with an idea. Series of ideas actually. Big Ben stays on one place (not swinging) and a hammer hits it. The crack is a small one at the bottom of the bell, just where the hammer was striking. So what they do:

  • Reduce the weight of the hammer;
  • Turn the bell around so the crack stays on the opposite side of the hammer;
  • Make a small square hole above the crack to prevent it spreading around.

What are the FACTS?

big ben at night photography
Elizabeth Tower at night

Here are few curious facts to feed your curiosity:

  • 334 steps to the top & no lift;
  • The clock faces are cleaned once in every 5 years. The cleaners come down from the top on ropes and have to be extremely careful because the clock doesn’t stop;
  • Each night the clock faces are illuminated by 112 light bulbs. In the past people were using gas lamps which of course had no switch. That means one unlucky person needed to go up and down to turn the lights on and off;
  • Big Ben is the second biggest bell in London. The first one is Great Paul (St. Paul’s Cathedral).

How do I get there and what can I see in the area?

where is big ben westminster map whitehall downing street buckingham palace.pngOf course there are numerous buses that go that way but the best way is to use the underground (the Tube). Just get off Westminster Underground station, take exit #4 and Big Ben will “greet you” as you go out of the station.
Oh, so many things are in a walking distance! Starting from Houses of Parliament, which is right next to the tower, and Westminster Abbey which is one square away (Parliament Square). London Eye is just across the river and SouthBank (a nice part of the riverside) is after the “Big Wheel” and is a nice place to have a walk. Take a stroll on Whitehall and you will pass by #10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister lives, and the Horse Guards Parade before you find yourself at Trafalgar Square (15 min). From the Square you can easily get to Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Palace & St. James’s Park and even Soho, Covent Garden and Leicester Square.

Can I go up the tower?

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Queen Elizabeth Tower

Yes and No. You can go inside but ONLY IF you are living in the UK and you have a proof of address. HOW? You need to contact your local MP (Member of Parliament) and let him know you want to book a visit. He will put you in the waiting list and your date will probably be after 5-6 months. On the date you will need to present your proof of address and go through “airport style” security check. HOW MUCH? You will never guess… it’s for FREE!! However, in 2017 the tower went under refurbishment which means “no tours for a while”. Further information can be found on the Living Heritage Website.

Check out this video playlist about Big Ben ⬇⬇⬇


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