The ramblings of an old horologist

Inside St Stephen’s Tower hangs Big Ben

Posted on: August 21st, 2011 by horologica

I’d been trying to arrange a visit to the Palace of Westminster for four years; applications must be made through your local MP but mine had never replied. This year I tried again and finally got to see inside the clock tower on my birthday. It’s well worth a visit, whether you’re interested in clocks or just London’s colourful history.

There’s a lot of detail and data on my Big Ben page (see the photo link on my Home page) and you can get more from the official Parliament website. But what I want to do here is to explain what you can expect. The tour begins in Portcullis House opposite the tower (nearest tube: Westminster). After the issue of a photo ID card, a bag scan and body search you’ll wait in the foyer surrounded by a good many Police wearing side arms and carrying fully automatic weapons.

The guide then arrives and explains that there are 334 concrete steps to the top and asks about any high blood pressure, pregnancies, surgical operations and other conditions that could restrict you, before crossing under the road to the Tower. The climb then begins and it’s not for the feint-hearted but with a couple of pauses along the way, it’s not too bad and on the way you’ll hear the bells chime the half hour.

At the first resting point, the guide will give a background history for about ten minutes in the unofficial Prison Room used to detain naughty MPs. If you wish, you can leave excess baggage here before continuing upwards until you reach the clock movement where you’ll hear tales of pennies, tragedies, and tireless clock-keepers who still wind the going train by hand three times a week. You’ll also get a glimpse of the dials outside through small windows and watch/hear the clock chime the third quarter. The loud clicking sound afterwards is the fly (air brake) on the chime train slowing down on its ratchet. A ratchet was fitted after it broke and sent the tonne weight to the ground in record time, while causing the wheels to fly across the room in what, at the time, was thought to be an explosion that warranted to attendence of the Bomb Squad.

Further up and you’ll eventually find yourself in the open bell tower where you’ll use ear plugs to control the deafening sound of the five bells as the four quarters sound and the hours are counted on Big Ben itself.  Note that this is BB2 as the first bell never made it to the top because it cracked after testing and was destroyed to make the new lighter bell (which also cracked under test but was repaired). On a good day, the views across London are fantastic; on a bad day, it’s wet and windy so take a jacket.

Then it’s back down to the previous level to walk round (and touch) the insides of the four glass dials when you’ll hear the first quarter chime again before returning to the Prison Room to hear more about the naming of the bell and other historic anecdotes. Finally, you’ll descend to ground level again, the whole tour taking around an hour and a half.

There’s no lift, and there’s no cafe or other place for refreshment in Portcullis House so have something to eat and drink before you arrive. And remember that photography is no longer permitted anywhere during the tour.

To arrange a tour contact your MP via


Hobson’s choice! Lucky ol’ Faust.

Posted on: August 3rd, 2011 by horologica

With apologies for a somewhat late July blog.

This month left me faced with a double-dilemma.

A chap sent me a brass carriage clock with a common enough French movement fitted. The case top was dented, the front and side glasses chipped and a screw had been fitted to the back door to replace the usual turned brass knob that had long since disappeared.

If that wasn’t enough, there was the usual problem – it didn’t work either. Only this time the clock was accompanied by a request is to fit a new quartz movement.

Well, I took a look at the existing movement and the all-important lever escapement looked like it could be persuaded to run so here’s my first dilemma; do I offer to dismantle, service and clean the antique inheritance, or do I simply remove a perfectly restorable antique movement and fit a new battery quartz movement instead?

I trembled at the thought of chucking in a nice plastic box and battery so I asked the owner if he would consider a repair instead. His wife, who inherited the clock from her father apparently liked the sound of getting the original one ticking again, he replied. So that was me out of an horological hole – I am now to restore it and my horological soul remains intact.

But it doesn’t. Soon afterwards the client emailed again to say that he didn’t really want it restored so could I just say it can’t be done and fit the quartz movement anyway. Dilemma number two. Can I come between a man and his wife and join in a conspiracy with one to help deceive the other?

I’d managed to sidestep the risk of selling my soul only to find myself in the worse position of selling my concience instead.

Faust had it easy.