Friday, 18 October 2013

31. Wonder: The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (part 2)

(for part 1 of the review of the Houses of Parliament, please go here.)

Let's get the obvious thing out of the way first. Big Ben is not a clock or a tower, it is the 13-ton bell, the bell that creates the distinctive ring known well to anyone in the UK who has waited for the first moments of New Year. I think this is widely known, but it's worth reiterating. Because throughout this review I'm going to refer to the actual clock tower as Big Ben, as that's pretty much what everyone in the world calls it. A couple of years ago, for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, it was renamed Elizabeth Tower, and I guess this will slowly become accepted; before that it was the highly imaginative "Clock Tower", and way before that it was called St Stephen's Tower, which was too boring to catch on. But Big Ben is the popular name and a great name. Plus, it's a lot easier to type.

Of course, Big Ben is just part of the larger structure of the Palace of Westminster, and it is as such that I'm judging it. But at the same time, the clock faces of the tower are where most eyes are drawn to upon looking at the whole building, just as you usually look at a person's face when looking at them. It is the focus. As a tourist attraction, Big Ben is the main event, and the Houses of Parliament is simply the bit added on. Which, I think, probably suits everyone fine.

Curiously, for such a globally recognised attraction, Big Ben is a very difficult place to visit. I managed a tour of parliament back in June but it wasn't until last week that I was able to visit Big Ben. Security too is more ramped up. You would think that the actual seat of power in the country, the Houses of Parliament, would be quite stringent in their security and checks, but it was surprisingly straightforward. Danielle, as my "plus one" for the tour could have been anyone, I don't think her identity was ever checked. For Big Ben though, details had to be given which included date of birth and, for some reason, place of birth. Only British citizens are allowed to visit. Upon arrival, and upon a long queue and thorough airport-style security, we had to show our passports and proof of address. It begs the question: what exactly is Big Ben hiding?
Embarrassingly, and uncharacteristically for me, Mike and I were late for the tour. It doesn't bear deeper analysis, but I still believe I was in perfect time and the tour had mysteriously moved forward in time. That is, it was the tour's fault, not mine. It made little difference, fortunately, as a spare tour guide was waiting for us upon arrival at the waiting area of Portcullis House, a building across the road from Big Ben. He explained we were late, I didn't bother to argue - "Sir! I am never late!" - and we rushed on to catch up with the rest of the group. Portcullis House connects to Big Ben, and thus the rest of the Palace of Westminster, via an underground tunnel, which goes below the road. It feels very spy-like. In fact, together with all the security checks, the whole tour had an element of espionage about it. It always seemed like there was something else going on that we weren't fully aware of. Why, for example, did the Houses of Parliament tour have just one guide, but the Big Ben needed two? The second Big Ben guide never did any actual guiding, he just maintained the rear, making sure there were no stragglers. Photography was obviously forbidden. And even my note-taking aroused interest, with both guides independently expressing interest on my motives for taking them. I don't think this has ever happened before. Mike had a theory that the guides were secret agents who had suffered some kind of mission failure, with their punishment being two years showing people round Big Ben.

We caught up with the rest of the group on the first floor, or whatever you call the first room you come to after about a hundred stairs. The above photo was taken by Mike on his iPhone and was the only one we managed - his fancy camera was taken from him at the security point. We hadn't missed much - most of the group were older than us, and much slower at climbing steps. The tour guide wasn't phased by our lateness, shook our hands, and continued with his background of the bell, the clock, and the tower.

The history of Big Ben is fairly straightforward - it was built at the same time as the Houses of Parliament, following the fire in 1834 (which was, funnily enough, exactly 179 years to the day). It kind of had a predecessor, a four-ton bell called Great Tom, which was part of a highly inaccurate clock at Westminster between around 1290 to 1700. In disrepair, the tower was torn down, but Great Tom is still around - it can now be found in St Paul's Cathedral. Royal palaces don't usually have clock towers as a main feature, but because the original Palace of Westminster had a tradition of it, the designers of the new palace - Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin - decided to include it.

It took 16 years to build, between 1843 and 1859, although much of this time was wasted in mistakes and disputes. We might complain today about government delays, squabbles and inefficiency - well, it was no different in Victorian times. Charles Barry was an architect, not a clockmaker, so he decided to use the official Clockmaker to the Queen, a man called Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy. Seems simple, but the other clockmakers didn't agree. They wanted a piece of the action, and thought there should be a fair competition to choose the best person for this job. Not helping Vulliamy's case was him publicly stating that he didn't think it was possible to keep a clock of that size accurate - not exactly a vote of confidence from the guy doing the job. So there was a competition, and a rival clockmaker, Edward John Dent, was awarded the contract. He got to work - but a year later died! His business passed onto his two stepsons (on the condition set out in his will that they both take on his surname). But then, a pissed-off Vulliamy decided to strike back, and took legal action against the Dents, and succeeded in getting their contract declared void. This was entirely a move out of spite, as by then the clock mechanism was almost finished, and Vulliamy had continued to state that the clock couldn't be built. Perhaps it was for the best that Vulliamy then conveniently died, the legal decision overruled, and the clockmakers could get on with finishing their clock.

The actual bell of Big Ben wasn't much easier. The bell we see today is attempt number 2. In 1856, to great fanfare, and drawn on a carriage by 16 white horses, the great 16-ton bell of Big Ben number one was taken through streets of cheering crowds to the tower. This was in the days before X-Factor, when things didn't get much better than a large bell being pulled by horses. But the following year - disaster. The overall designer of the clock mechanism and responsible for the famous chimes was a man called Edmund Beckett Denison, and he was determined to get an E-natural note from the giant bell. So he kept hitting it, harder and harder with bigger and bigger hammers. Until a 4-foot crack appeared, rendering the bell useless. Oh dear. The bell had to be scrapped. Incidentally, how do you scrap a 16 ton bronze bell? You drop a 1-ton iron ball on it from 30-feet, for two days, of course.

A new bell was made, this time weighing 13 tons, and in 1858, another 16 horses pulled it through the streets packed with cheering crowds evidently still without much else to do. And what did Denison immediately then do? He began hitting it hard again, trying to get an E-natural. And it cracked again! Fortunately, this time the crack was just a foot long, and by turning the bell 90 degrees and using a lighter hammer, it was still good to go. And that's the bell we see today, Big Ben v.2, with a (barely visible, truth be told) 1-foot crack and a sound that our guide described as more of an E-flat than an E-natural. I took his word for it.

The inspiration for the name of Big Ben isn't known for certain. Its origins are as a nickname, and nobody thought to keep tabs on the origins of nicknames back then. One possibility that's often mentioned is that its named after a popular boxer of time, Ben Caunt, who himself was nicknamed Big Ben. To my mind, the much likelier candidate was the politician Sir Benjamin Hall, the Commissioner of Works who oversaw the commissioning of the bell. He was 6 foot 4 and fat, and his name was inscribed on the first version of the bell. Possibly, with the popular boxer's nickname widely known, and the giant bell with the name Benjamin on it, it wasn't specifically named after either but was simply an obvious, inevitable nickname for its time.

The bell of Big Ben, as well as the other bells, are the final part of the tour, right at the top of the tower, in the belfry. Before seeing and hearing them, the tour climbed the square spiral staircase from the 1st floor to the floor with the clock faces. There are four clock faces of Big Ben, and the tour takes you right behind them. Literally - you can touch the inside of Big Ben, a sentence that sounds vaguely creepy now I write it. The clock faces are made from a thick glass that feels plastic to the touch, and is a slightly translucent white, that the clock hands (on the outside obviously) are vaguely discernible through.

Our guide regaled that one of the few times that Big Ben strayed from the right time was in 1949, when a vast number of starlings landed on the minute hand. What's the collective noun for starlings? That's right, it's a murmuration of starlings - isn't that lovely? The murmuration was a large one (a roar?) that day, as they pushed the minute hand down and slowed it by five minutes. These days, some hawks are employed (via a trainer, I assume, I don't think they get paid directly) to fly about the Houses of Parliament to keep starlings off Big Ben, as well as other badly-behaving birds from loitering.

The clock faces are 23 feet, or 7 metres, in diameter. That's pretty big, although they seemed surprisingly small when actually standing behind them. We were able to walk around the inside of all four faces, before heading up to the belfry in time to see Big Ben chime for 3pm.

Throughout the leisurely paced tour, we had been privy to the inner workings of the clock mechanism, most of which I freely admit escape me. Importantly though, I realised that the clock tower itself is part of the mechanism. The square spiral staircase which runs up the inside was built around the central shaft. All the rooms in the tower are square U-shaped rooms, based around the shaft. Inside the shaft is where various weights and pendulums hang, keeping the time and clock hands ticking. The actual mechanism is immediately behind the clock faces, but climbing up the tower, the shifting weights inside the shaft could often be heard: clunkings, bangings, rattlings. It was an audible reminder that this particular Wonder isn't just a building, or a structure, or piece of architecture, it's a machine.

It's 334 steps to the belfry, and our guide seemed awfully concerned that we take it easy, and not collapse or die or anything. I appreciate guides want to ensure the welfare of their group, but we were only walking up some steps. Perhaps there's a history of visitors collapsing. Or perhaps it's a known spy tactic.

The belfry reminded me a little of the Eiffel Tower, with the naked Victorian era ironwork. It's open to the elements, although it was fortunately a calm afternoon. We gathered round the side of the Big Ben bell itself, although it is accompanied by lots of other smaller bells which combine to form its chime. The timing of the entire tour was very precise, and we had enough time for the guide to tell us a little about the bell before 3pm arrived. Then we put in our earplugs and listened as the smaller bells rung the famous chimes, before watching the large hammer strike Big Ben bell three times. The hammer strikes the bell surprisingly softly, or so it appears at any rate.

I could have spent a lot longer in the belfry, as it gave great views across parliament, across London, and across to Buckingham Palace. I would love to have scampered up the tightly-wound iron spiral staircase to the very top, but I know I would have been karate chopped by a guide if I'd tried. We climbed back down to the clock face level for a closer look at the mechanism, and at the single pennies that are added or taken away from the pendulum to keep the time precise to the second. But the belfry was the peak of the tour in more way than one, and when you've scaled the most famous clock in the world and seen its 13-ton bell ring across London, looking at a baffling metal mechanism in a dim room is more one for the clock aficionados.

It's probably a fair scrap between Big Ben and Tower Bridge as to what the most famous landmark in London is. They are both huge icons, and although I think Tower Bridge probably just nudges it as the poster boy, I also think Big Ben far outshines Tower Bridge in terms of genuine class. Tower Bridge, when it boils down to it, is a pretty bauble along the Thames, but Big Ben is a heavyweight institution. The sound of its bells are known across the nation, and how many Wonders can you say that about? How many Wonders can be identified by sound alone?

The clock tower of Big Ben is certainly more famous than the adjoining Houses of Parliament, but it is a symbiotic relationship - the two need each other. Big Ben would look naked without the massive parliamentary palace attached - it would be a solitary tower surrounded by a city, and it's simply not that big a tower to make an impression by itself. Equally, the Houses of Parliament would remain an exquisite structure even if Big Ben were just a standard tower, but it would lose a magic ingredient. It would be like the Jackson Five without Michael Jackson, a World Cup without Brazil, or a fried breakfast without bacon. Together though, they are something impressive: an icon with substance.

Both tours were interesting, and although I'd love to have the freedom to explore both more fully, there is also a special feeling of visiting somewhere usually not readily open to the public. And, to be honest, like many Wonders, the greatest impact is just standing from a distance and looking at them. Visiting and understanding anywhere always enhances the appreciation, but the most significant impression is made simply by gazing on the whole thing and thinking "not bad..." The Houses of Parliament affords multiple views, all of them splendid. Start at Big Ben and walk by the long western facade to the imposing Victoria Tower. Continue on through the Victoria Tower Gardens, then cross Lambeth Bridge to appreciate it from a distance. From the other side of the Thames, walk to Westminster Bridge with a perfect view of the eastern facade from across the river. Finally, cross over Westminster Bridge to approach the Houses of Parliament again, with Big Ben most prominent. It's clear it's no ordinary building - it's a standout piece, unique, colossal, and fantastic in its conception. It's something special.

Some criteria then.

Size: Massive. In height, the three towers don't quite reach 100 metres, but the Houses of Parliament are about overall bulk. It is a grand, imposing building well suited for the running of a country.
Engineering: The mechanics behind Big Ben are the most obviously impressive - unprecedented precision for its day.
Artistry: Neo-Gothic, Gothic Revival, Perpendicular English Gothic, call it what you want, it looks like nothing else. Architecturally exquisitive outside and inside, sure it's overblown and overwhelming in its detail, but hey, it's Gothic. Superb from a distance, superb close up, the entire Houses of Parliament are an old-school work of art.
Age/Durability: Westminster Hall is many centuries old, the rest of it is around 150 but has the air of something older. It's difficult to imagine parliament ever moving house, so as long as Britain remains Britain (or England remains England at any rate), the Houses of Parliament should remain.
Fame/Iconicity: Big Ben being the focal point, it's probably a very close second behind Tower Bridge as a London icon, but way ahead in prestige. Really, it barely gets more iconic. You see the Eiffel Tower, you see Paris. You see the Statue of Liberty, you see New York. And in exactly the same breath, you see Big Ben, and you see London.
Context: London is so vast and sprawling, it's easy to get swallowed up in it. St Paul's Cathedral is a sad example of that. But the Houses of Parliament have a prime spot by the banks of the Thames and imposes itself upon London, rather than the other way round. Perhaps it wouldn't do any harm to have a little more space, but ultimately the surroundings of one of the world's greatest cities just further boosts it.
Back Story: The story of the Palace of Westminster is intrinsically tied with the story of England, or later Britain. Even if you only want to wind back to the 19th Century, there's rather a lot going on.
Originality: I'd love to tell you that the Houses of Parliament were utterly original - but go and take a look at Toddington Manor. So, it's not the very first of its kind, but that's like saying the Great Pyramid wasn't the first pyramid. Sure, it's Gothic Revival, the very name suggesting the style has been done before, but it took a style and cranked up to 11. And Big Ben is a special feature.
Wow Factor: It's got it, of course. I'm not sure where is best - across the other side of the Thames and seeing it stretch across the opposite bank, or emerging from Westminster Underground to see it dominate the view, Big Ben towering above. My only reservation - Big Ben is so famous, so recognisable, that at first view it probably isn't as big as it is in your mind. In some way, it is eclipsed by its own fame. And there's so much going on with the whole building that it can take a while to sink in.

A World Wonder has to be grand, distinctive, and visually spectacular: the Houses of Parliament certainly fits the bill. More than that, it's got depth, history, detail, and is as relevant today as it's ever been. It's a bit of a beast, sprawling by the banks of the Thames and to some might be a little too jam-packed and over-the-top - but that's just the way it should be. Subtlety was never the primary objective, although that's not to say there aren't plenty of subtle touches - it's a refined beast, not a crude one. It's possible that its beauty might be a little too austere and rigid for some, and I can appreciate that, and the wealth of detail gives it a visual depth rather than a gut visual punch. There are no glaring shortcomings however with the Houses of Parliament, and it clearly rates highly. It doesn't quite make the Top Seven, but I'd place it just outside. Above its majestic but partially obscured city-mate, St Paul's Cathedral, but a smidgeon behind the otherwordly Borobudur.

Standings to date

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. The Eiffel Tower
4. The Millau Viaduct
5. Angkor Wat
6. Bagan
7. Sydney Opera House

Other Wonders
Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris

Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

1 comment:

  1. The Houses of Parliament always made me pause and look at them when I lived in London. In fact I had a friend at the time who spent a few days in the hospital across the river (I forget the name) and the first thing he did when he was in his room was to phone up his mother and tell her about the view.

    Strange about the level of security in Big Ben, it does seem over the top considering that the tower itself doesn't contain important offices or documents.


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