Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben…

I had a rather fun start to the day on Thursday: my day began with a 334-step climb up Elizabeth Tower. For those who don’t know, Elizabeth Tower is the official name of the tower that we all tend to call Big Ben! The story behind Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben is fascinating, and I’d really recommend the tour; if you write to your MP you can go for free. It was great to learn so much about this most iconic of British buildings, and I was shocked to learn that Big Ben, which is the bell, is actually Big Ben the second. This is because, when they were trying to tune Big Ben the first to E natural (in the mid nineteenth century), they chose a hammer that was far too heavy and the whole thing – all 16.5 tons – cracked apart.

I was moved to hear that Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the man who designed the clock faces, suffered a breakdown in 1852, just around the time he was designing the clock. He was sent to Bedlam and, suffering from poor mental and physical health, died at the end of the year aged 40. It was really quite sad. I’ll never look at that beautiful clock again in the same way, knowing that a man in so much pain created something so beautiful.

Big Ben

Thanks to Niky81 from Flickr for this (2011) photo.

My favourite moment, and one which was particularly poignant, was when Lindsay explained how the accuracy of the clock is maintained. Three times a week a team climbs into the clock tower and checks this. If the accuracy has slipped at all, they have a simple solution: on the pendulum which keeps the time, they either add or take away an old copper coin from a pile which has been sat next to the pendulum for years. Each coin changes the time by two fifths of a second. This practical ingenuity evoked a very precious memory. When my father and I dismantled the grandfather clock of my dear late grandfather Eric Harry Miles Foxen, ready to move it to our house, we found a yellow paperclip in the mechanism holding several bits together and enabling it to work. It was a paperclip I had sent him, along with others, some seven years earlier because yellow was his favourite colour. I’d been bowled over when I discovered the paperclip, and, hearing about the Big Ben coin trick, couldn’t help but think how much I would have loved to tell my grandfather that the same sort of practical ingenuity that he used to keep his clock working is what is enabling the most iconic clock in the world to keep time.


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