Big Ben is one of London’s defining landmarks. Situated directly next to the Houses of Parliament, the tower can be seen and heard from far and wide. Below I’ve compiled some information about the chimes played by Big Ben, the origin of the name, and everything else you need to know about what is probably the world’s most famous clock tower.
Big Ben – London’s pride and joy in 5 questions
1. When was Big Ben built?
The famous clock tower was erected as part of a new palace after the original Palace of Westminster was destroyed overnight by a fire in October 1834. This explains why Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament were both built in the neo-Gothic style of the mid-nineteenth century.
Fortunately, this object of national pride survived the wars. However, its condition has suffered somewhat over the past ten years due to tunneling for the subway lines. It has reportedly developed a tilt that increases by an average of around 0.04 inches per year, and the deviation from the perpendicular is now even visible with the naked eye.
2. What about the Big Ben renovation?
Big Ben has been undergoing restoration work since 2017, so if you’re planning on visiting London in the near future, you’ll find the tower covered in scaffolding. We would also like to point out that, according to a parliamentary announcement, the clock will remain silent for the next four years. We’ll miss your familiar chimes, Big Ben! This historic site is nevertheless worth a visit.
3. The name – Big Ben or Elizabeth Tower?
When people talk about Big Ben, they’re almost always referring to the entire tower, although the latter is officially called the Elizabeth Tower. In 2012, this tower on the Thames, previously known as The Clock Tower, was renamed in honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
The name Big Ben is really a nickname for the heaviest bell that chimes inside the clock tower. The 13.5 ton bell chimes every hour on the hour and is affectionately referred to as the “Voice of Britain”. It is thought that Big Ben may have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who was First Commissioner of Works of the British Parliament when the bell was installed in 1859. However, according to other sources, the bell takes its name from the heavy-weight boxer Benjamin Caunt.
4. How tall is Big Ben?
Standing at a height of 3.159 feet, Big Ben is a landmark you can’t miss! And since a big tower needs a big clock, the latter’s dimensions are similarly impressive: each of the four clock dials measures 23 feet in diameter, and the 14-foot minute hand alone weighs a good 220 pounds. Like the adjacent Houses of Parliament, the first 200 feet of Big Ben consist of brickwork with limestone cladding. The spire is made of cast iron. Like so many other historic towers, the London clock tower leans slightly: it now has a 0.26° tilt and an 18-inch overhang.
5. Is it possible to go on a tour of Big Ben?
You would certainly get a wonderful view of London from Big Ben, but sadly we have to disappoint you. Big Ben isn’t open to the public. You have to be a British citizen and apply to your local MP for permission to climb the 330 steps inside Elizabeth Tower to get a close-up view of Big Ben and the other bells.
An aerial view of London is nevertheless something not to be missed. From the London Eye, directly opposite Big Ben on the other side of the Thames, you can get a breathtaking view of the whole city, including numerous attractions and of course the Elizabeth Tower! Another option is to take the ferry to Greenwich and climb the hill to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. This is a vantage point I can particularly recommend, as it is less well known and hence less crowded, and the boat trip is a wonderful experience in itself. A little insider tip for all fans of Pink Floyd: on your trip along the Thames, you’ll pass Battersea Power Station, which is featured on the cover of the “Animals” album.
Big Ben’s clock
Big Ben is probably one of the few clocks that requires four mechanics to keep it working 24/7. Each side of the iron clock surround is 23 feet long and consists of 312 individual parts. The lower edge of each clock surround is inscribed with the Latin words: “Domine salvam fac reginam nostram Victoriam primam” (God protect our Queen Victoria I).
A magnificent sight: Big Ben by night!
Like virtually all London’s attractions, the Elizabeth Tower and the Houses of Parliament are beautifully illuminated at night. If you take an evening stroll along the Thames, you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the illuminated building, which is also reflected in the water. You may also notice a lamp shining above each dial of Big Ben, indicating that parliament is still in session. I can also recommend a river cruise or a visit to the London Eye at dusk or night-time.
Whereabouts in London is Big Ben?
You can’t miss Big Ben, as the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster – the British parliament building – is situated right in the heart of the metropolis. If you cross the Thames via Westminster Bridge from the direction of the London Eye, it’s directly in front of you and you’ll have a great view of the whole tower and the adjacent parliament building – an impressive ensemble directly on the river bank! This view is particularly attractive at dusk when the illuminated building is reflected in the water.
Located in the London borough of St. James’, Big Ben is within easy walking distance of numerous other sightseeing attractions. Just around the corner is the famous Westminster Abbey, and Tate Museum is only a 15-minute walk along the Thames. Buckingham Palace is also within a 15-minute radius – the path through St. James’ Park is the best route to take.
How to get to Big Ben
Big Ben is easily accessible by subway (known in London as the “Tube”). Your best option is to take the Circle (yellow), District (dark green) or Jubilee (gray) Line to Westminster Station – from there you’ll see the famous tower on the opposite side of the street.
If you want to include several attractions or tours in your itinerary, such as the London Eye or a Thames river cruise, I can recommend the London Pass. This pass can be booked for one or more days and persons, and will save you a considerable amount on admission charges. Another great advantage of this card is that it offers so-called “fast track” admission to numerous attractions, enabling you to skip the long lines at the entrance gates!
If you’re intending to explore lots of London’s sights and take part in several tours, I can also recommend buying an Oyster Card in combination with the London Pass. That way you’ll be able to use all forms of public transport and save money on admission charges.