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Another orbit complete - John C. Kirk

Jul. 2nd, 2013

01:43 am - Another orbit complete

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Today was my birthday, so I took the day off work and arranged to climb the Elizabeth Tower (aka the Big Ben tower, one of the items on my bucket list).

I started with a trip to the "all you can eat" breakfast buffet at Victoria station. Unfortunately this was boarded over, with no sign of when it will re-open. Not a great omen for the day, but never mind.

Then onward to Portcullis House. It's taken me a while to set this up: I originally emailed my MP on 2nd Feb, then I had a reply from his PA on 1st March. I confirmed that I was still interested on 15th March, then the next message came on 23rd May, saying that they had a couple of cancellations on 4th June or 1st July, but I had to reply quickly otherwise they'd offer the places to someone else. If there was a bigger group then it would probably take longer.

Anyway, I turned up this morning with all the relevant documentation so that I could get past security. According to my letter, the tour would start at 11:15 (lasting about 1h15m), and I needed to be there at least 20 minutes early. They're quite strict about that, for reasons which became clear later.

When they sent me the letter, I had to sign a form saying that I was physically capable of climbing the staircase, and the tour guide asked again about our physical fitness before we went up. There are 334 steps, and he said that we'd take a few rest breaks along the way. I thought that they were going a bit over the top with all this, and I wondered why it was going to take so long to get up there. However, I must admit that I could feel a bit of a pull in my calf muscles after the first section of the climb, and I was slightly out of breath by the time we stopped. I've been up several bell towers in churches; like them, we used a spiral staircase to get up the Elizabeth Tower. However, the staircase was in much better condition than a lot of them. In particular, each stair was actually level, rather than having a worn groove/dip in the middle.

More importantly, there was actually a reason for each stop (aside from a rest break): we got to see some of the inner workings and learn more about the history of the tower. For instance, we walked behind the clock faces, so the numbers were all back to front! The bells ring every 15 minutes, and some people heard the 11:30 chimes ring while we were on the staircase although I personally didn't. The 11:45 chimes went off while we were standing next to a clock face, and we could hear the clunking of the mechanisms in the room behind us. We got up to the belfry to see the actual bells in time for the 12:00 chimes; they do tours at different times of day, but I think this is the best time to go, so that you get the maximum number of "bongs". They issued us with earplugs, and standing next to the Great Bell it sounded about the same as hearing it from street level. I then took out one of the earplugs (on the ear furthest from the bell) to see how much louder it was at close range: suffice it to say that I quickly jammed the earplug back in!

While we were up at the top, we had a very good view of London. (It helped that we got lucky with the weather.) This tower isn't quite as high as the London Eye or the Shard, and it's a bit windier, but it has the advantage that it's free. The tour guide knew that it was my birthday (since I had to show my passport as ID), and I got a round of applause from the rest of the tour group, which was quite nice.

On the way back down, we stopped inside another room to see the mechanism that drives the hammers. (Unlike most church bells, these are effectively gongs, i.e. the bell stays put and the hammer hits the outside.) That coincided with the 12:15 chimes, so we saw it in action.

At each stop, the tour guide explained how things worked and told us some interesting trivia. If you liked the book Longitude then you'd probably like this too. The tour guide didn't invite us to ask questions, and I can understand why: he needed to get us into position at key times to actually see what happened when the bells chimed. If you're like me then you'll probably have to bite your tongue; I certainly kept thinking of things that I wanted to ask. However, the prepared speeches did actually cover all of my questions by the end of the tour, so just be patient.

By the time we all got down to the bottom, it was about 12:45, so the tour ran slightly longer than advertised but that was fine by me. The tour guide said that we were welcome to visit the House of Commons and listen to the debates there (I think this is our right as British citizens), but I decided to leave that for another time. All in all, it was well worth the trip, so I highly recommend it. There's a similar tour around Parliament (booked in the same way) so I'll arrange that next.

In the afternoon, I went off to watch Man of Steel at the IMAX. And ... that occupied me for a few hours. It's not so much that it was a bad film (although there were several plotholes), it just wasn't particularly good, and it dragged on for a long time. Ah well, at least I now have an informed opinion about it.

The evening was quite productive, including some preparation for my upcoming London-Paris cycling trip. So, all in all a good day.