London Drum

Big Ben, Houses of Parliament – Clock tower tour

Where? Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, Westminster · Web: Opening times? Tours are currently suspended because of building works, and are not expected to re-start again until late-2022 Time required? A typical visit is 5 mins Parking: Nearby car parks Buses: 11, 24, 148, 211 Bus fares Trains: The closest station is Westminster Circle District Jubilee Train fares

Craig’s review… Apparently Big Ben has started leaning two feet to the west because of all the tube trains rumbling under his feet, so I always picture him as a cantankerous old grandad stooping on his arthritic knees, bellowing at the tourists whilst they’re standing there staring at him. If I were him I’d start whizzing my hands around at 100 mph just for the sheer hell of it, just to break the monotony and let everybody know that I was still there. I’d hammer my ten-tonne bells until the MPs came charging out of Parliament demanding that I shut up.

Guided tour of Big Ben

It’s not as easy to get into Big Ben as it is to get into Parliament itself, which is a bit weird. You can’t just turn up and ask for a tour. You have to write a letter to your local MP first and ask for an invite. I did that way back in May and was given a tour date four months later – so that shows you how far in advance you have to plan it (or maybe I just have a lousy MP).

When you finally get the acceptance letter they make it sound a lot scarier than it actually is. First of all they make you fill in a spreadsheet with all your personal details so the security people can check you’re not a terrorist, and then they insist that you bring along two forms of ID (like a passport, driving license or utility bill) and if you turn up one minute late you won’t be allowed in (no exceptions!).

On the next page they start talking about the stairs: no one with a heart complaint, no one with breathing problems or vertigo can go, and pregnant women shouldn’t even think about it. It’s 334 spiral steps to the top which is twenty more than The Monument, and I remember having problems climbing those with my dodgy knees, so you can imagine how much I was looking forward to Big Ben after reading that letter. I was seriously starting to have second thoughts.

MPs’ offices in Portcullis House

The meeting point for the tour is across the road in Portcullis House where most of the MPs have their day-to-day offices. It’s quite an interesting place to begin because it lets you have a quick nose around a normally inaccessible building – and you can see those notorious trees in the atrium. (So that’s where all of our taxes are going – the MPs are planting trees indoors!) After that you get led through an underground tunnel that takes you below the road towards Big Ben.

The tour doesn’t include any part of Parliament other than the clock tower itself, so it’s strictly about Big Ben. And the first part is by far the hardest – 115 steps to the first room. So rest assured that you don’t have to climb all 334 steps in one go, which was certainly a big relief to me. So when you get that scary letter warning you to write your will beforehand, just ignore it – if you’ve ever managed to climb to the top of The Monument or St. Paul’s Cathedral then you will find this easy-peasy.

The clock mechanism

The first part of the talk was all about the history of the bell: who designed it, who built it, and who installed it. Our guide was pretty good and he went into plenty of detail, but there wasn’t a lot to actually see in this first room, just a big poster on the wall and some seats were we could rest and catch our breath. After that he took us up another flight of stairs to the clock mechanism. This room looked more like a mini-factory with pulleys, pendulums, cogs and whirring wheels all over the place. Just before it struck half-past nine he warned us of a coming cacophony of noise and he wasn’t joking. When the whole thing whirred into action it scared the living daylights out of us. Imagine the sound of a factory gone wrong: long levers banging up and down, cogs clanking round and round, and heavy hammers bashing the bells tens of meters above your head.

The clock tower belfry and Big Ben bell

After that bit of excitement we headed up to the belfry to see Big Ben himself. Incredibly, the guide even let us stand inside the bell room whilst it chimed ten. This was such a deep and visceral thrill that words can never do it justice. One minute the big bell was sleeping peacefully and then it was as if he’d suddenly become rage and thunder. There really was no escape from his anger. The guide had given us some earplugs beforehand which we were obliged to wedge into our lugs, but it was still astonishingly loud – loud enough to make my bones vibrate. It made my vision shake. I think a few of my teeth crumbled into dust as well. And it wasn’t just Big Ben chiming because there were several bells all around us (one for each note of the tune), all pounding out the sound into our vibrating skulls.

When we had recovered from that experience he took us back down the stairs and stopped off behind the huge clock faces, where we could see the shadow of the gigantic hands pass in front of the glass.

And that was it, sadly. All that remained was for us to walk back down, still shaking our heads and banging our ears with our palms, trying to make our hearing came back.

Worth a visit? Value for money? n/aGood for kids? Easy to get to?

I also recommend… If you enjoy this then try Downing Street (you can walk it in 6 mins) and Houses of Parliament (you can walk it in less than 2 mins). How about watching the politicians inside the House of Commons and House of Lords? If you send a letter to your local MP then you might be able to get a ticket to PMQs as well. Read my complete guide to political events in London for lots more ideas

London Squire bookThe owns and has spent the last decade reviewing the capital’s landmarks, attractions and hotels. His guidebook is available from Amazon

Related articles and events

London Eye New Year’s Eve Fireworks 2025

London Eye New Year’s Eve Fireworks 2025

Your comments and questions

Hap Do you have to pay to get into Big Ben

Craig You don't have to pay, but you do need to write a letter to your local MP to get an invite ticket, which will probably take a couple of months at least.

Hap What should you write in your letter?

Craig Just tell them you'd like an invite to the 'Big Ben and Elizabeth Tower Tour'. Give them a range of dates that you can do, at least three or four months in the future. Don't just give them one date, because it books up ages in advance. Give them your full name, age and address (because they have to check you're a constituent). My MP then sent me over some security questions which I had to email back. It was only after I did that that I received the ticket.

Hap Thank you ever so much for your reply, it's very helpful. I shall send a link to our WI ladies. Thanks again.

Jenny Hello Craig. We are thinking of either climbing Big Ben or doing a tour of The Houses of Parliament. Which do you think is best?

Craig Hi, Parliament is easily the best. With Big Ben you get to see the bell and stand behind the clock faces, but with Parliament you get to go inside the House of Commons, the House of Lords, Westminster Hall, plus all of the other beautiful rooms like the Royal Gallery and Robing Room. Big Ben is definitely worth doing, but if you only have time for one then Parliament will be more impressive.

Richard I love the Big Ben Clock, but I can't figure out why the clockmaker used the symbol F in stead of the Roman Numeral X usually used for clock dial. A theory of mine is that the Romans invaded Britain one time and that the British Royalty did not want to use the Roman numeral because of that. I would really want to know what the answer is to this question. Please help if you can. Thank you.

Craig Hi Richard. I can see what you mean about it looking like an F, but it's just a stylised X with a line through the middle

Sue When does the bell chime?

Craig Hi Sue. The main Big Ben bell goes off every hour. The smaller quarter bells go off at 15, 30 and 45 past the hour

Kai H We were disappointed that tourists are not allowed to go on a tour of Big Ben. Why is that? We would have loved to seen inside but only UK people are allowed to visit. That doesn't seem very fair

Craig Hi Kai. You're right, because you need to request an invite from your local MP, which a foreign visitor won't be able to do. I don't know the reason, but perhaps it's because they need to do a security check on everyone first, which will be harder if you're from overseas. But tourists can go inside the House of Parliament though, which is even better than Big Ben -​attractions/​houses-of-parliament.php

Leave a comment