This post is part of a series. You can read about the origins of our travel tradition here.
When you think about the world’s most iconic buildings, Big Ben has to spring to mind. It instantly conveys London, the same way the Statue of Liberty or Eiffel Tower convey New York City and Paris. But did you know Big Ben isn’t actually the name of the tower, but the name of one of the bells inside? The tower itself is properly named Elizabeth Tower, changed in 2012 to honor Queen Elizabeth in her Diamond Jubilee year.
The tower stands 315 feet (96 m) tall, and you can climb the 334 steps to the top (which, during our high summer visit, we most assuredly did not). This London sightseeing icon was finished in 1859, and at the time, its four-faced clock was the largest and most accurate striking and chiming clock in the world—though FYI, if you on a London trip right now, you’ll note that the bells are silent. For the next four years, the tower will be repainted, re-glazed, re-gilded, retrofitted, and updated (with a lift, praise be).
In 2021, the bells will again ring out every 15 minutes, with such power that their peals can be heard five miles away. Big Ben the Bell is officially named the “Great Bell”. The Big Ben nickname is in tribute to Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the first Commissioner of Public Works. The bell weighs 16 tons and is around 7 feet tall.
Every year the clock is adjusted using an old English penny. If the clock is running fast, a penny is added to the pendulum. If the clock is running slow, a penny is removed from the pendulum. This method might strike you as odd, but when you consider that the clock is accurate to within a second, it’s actually pretty impressive! Not that Big Ben has always been so accurate. In 1944, a flock of birds came to roost on one of the hands and were so heavy they slowed the time-keeping mechanism. And a particularly brutal storm over New Year’s in 1962 caused Big Ben to chime in the New Year 10 minutes late.