My attempts to get fit in time for climbing the 334 steps of the Clock Tower at the Houses of Parliament were in vain. I was out of breath on the several attempts I had made climbing the escalator on the tube and suddenly the day was upon us and I was no fitter than I had been when the visit was first arranged.
However the ascent was much easier than anticipated. We stopped several times on the way up and I did wonder what I had been worrying about; it was just the excessive health and safety warnings that had frightened me.
The visit was with other members of the Westminster Guiding Association so it was a bit surreal having a guide tell us all about the history of the Palace of Westminster which we all already knew but the facts about the creation of the clock and the Great Bell (Big Ben) were fascinating. There are two theories as to how the bell got its nickname. The first and most plausible comes from Sir Benjamin Hall, First Commissioner for Works who was a rather large person and was himself nicknamed Big Ben. His name is inscribed on the bell. The second theory relates to a heavyweight boxer of the time called Ben Caunt.
Next we visited the rooms behind each of the 4 clock dials which was a bizarre experience. The clock survived the Second World War but was defeated by a flock of starlings in 1949 which roosted on the hands and caused the clock to lose 4 minutes. This won't happen again as they now employ 2 hawks to keep away rogue birds.
We then climbed a few more steps to the belfry. It was an amazing feeling to be right next to Big Ben when the bongs sounded at 10am. I felt very privileged to be there.
The views were fantastic too although there was a bit of a chilly wind up there! Afterwards we went to see the inner workings of the clock which was fascinating; however if I was a guide there I would find it difficult to remember all the technical details.
As it is mechanical the clock does have to be regularly wound up (although thankfully not by hand) and is regularly maintained together with the 2000 or so other clocks in the Parliamentary buildings. We asked how it was kept accurate; the answer being there was a phone on the wall and they used it to dial 123! The pendulum weight is altered by the addition or withdrawal of pre-decimal pennies.
The trip down the stairs was harder than going up but my energy levels were low as I hadn't had time for breakfast which could have explained my faint feeling!
Our visit finished with a look around the gallery level of Portcullis House where I finally saw the painting which shows the House of Commons in session in 1986 and if you use the controls to zoom in on the clock at the back of the Chamber (in the middle of the painting), then pan up and right you will find a portrait of my Dad (Chris Moncrieff a political journalist) at the right hand end of the second row of people who are standing.
Labels: guiding, Palace of Westminster, Parliament