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London Attractions

Big Ben

Possibly the most famous clock face and chimes in the world, Big Ben is actually the name of the biggest bell (13.5 tons) inside The Clock Tower (320ft) which forms part of the Houses of Parliament. Built in 1858/9 the bell was named after one Sir Benjamin Hall and when it was cast it was Britain’s heaviest bell. The clock’s four dials each have a diameter of 23ft, the minute hands are 14ft long and the numerals on each face are nearly 2ft high. The placing of old pennies in the mechanism controls the accuracy of the clock movement, yet it is incredibly accurate.

The tower which houses Big Ben has been called by many names, one of the most popular is St Stephen’s Tower. The official line, from the Head of Public Information at the Palace is that the Clock Tower is simply called The Clock Tower. However, the name Big Ben has now passed into every day use and the locals call it Big Ben so we’ll go along with that too. There is a light at the top of the tower which, when lit, indicates that the House of Commons is sitting. During the day you can tell if they’re sitting by looking for a flag at the top of the nearby Victoria Tower, which is the tallest and largest of the Westminster towers.

The subject of John Buchan’s “39 Steps”, the Clock Tower is unfortunately not open to the public so you won’t be able to check how many steps actually lead to the belfry. However, we can tell you that it’s not 39. It’s actually closer to 400 depending on where you start and finish. It is widely thought that Buchan dreamt up the idea of using 39 steps at a time when he was recovering from illness in a convalescent home. Directly outside his windows there were 39 steps leading from the patio to the lawn!

The room that houses the actual clock mechanism is full of Victorian mechanical wonders that whiz and band each time the clock strikes. The ding-dongs that precede the striking of the hour were taken from George Frederick Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and actually have lyrics too…

‘All through this hour, Lord by my guide, That by thy power, No foot shall slide.’

The clock plays the first line at a quarter past the hour, the first and second lines on the half hour, three lines at a quarter to and the whole lot on the hour!

The Houses of Parliament

Home of the British Government, the building is actually called the Palace of Westminster, but is more commonly known as the Houses of Parliament, due to the two parts of government that live here. These are the elected House of Commons and the House of Lords, made up of hereditary and life peers. The Commons introduces new legislation but the Lords acts as a kind of quality control department and debates the issues again, before they are made law. The British Sovereign today plays a mainly ceremonial role in the running of the country. This includes the ceremony of the state opening of Parliament.

The oldest part of the Palace of Westminster is Westminster Hall, dating back to the year 1097. When Daniel Defoe visited Westminster Hall during his tour of 1724, he said it resembled a barn. Geoffrey Chaucer (English poet 1340-1400) worked in the Palace as Clerk of Works, a very prestigious position given to him by Richard II.

A fire in 1834 destroyed all but Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower across the road, so the rest of the present building is surprisingly new, having been built in the period 1840-1860 to a mock-Gothic design. Strangely, the hall tends to be ignored, except for on state occasions.

Visitors to the public gallery do pass through the end of the hall on their way in through the airport style security checks. A century ago in Dickens’ day, the hall was a more focal point.When Parliament is sitting a light is turned on above the Clock Tower that houses Big Ben, and a flag is flown from Victoria Tower (the tall tower at the opposite end from Big Ben’s Clock Tower). On the corner near Parliament Square a beacon flashes and a bell rings when a Member of Parliament wants a taxicab.

Visitors are welcome in both the Lords' and Commons' public galleries when the houses are sitting. Join the queue outside St Stephen’s entrance (in the middle of the building). The queue for the commons can be quite large during the afternoon but the house sits until around 10pm and during the evening there is often no need to queue.

Arrangements must be made in advance to tour around the rest of the Palace. You’ll need to speak to your local M.P. if you live in the UK, otherwise arrangements can be made through your embassy. The original plans for the Houses of Parliament can be seen at Sir John Sloane’s Museum.

At the road junction next to the Houses of Parliament is Parliament Square. This small area of grass is an oasis in a sea of traffic. There are now plans to pedestrianize the area around the square and also Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, but at the moment the traffic deters many people from reaching the square. Those who do will find statues honouring a number of past British Prime Ministers. There is also one of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the 16th President of the USA.

Opposite ‘The House’ is a green and grassy area where news crews conduct interviews with politicians. This is known variously as ‘Abingdon Green’, ‘College Green’ and ‘St Stephen’s Green’. The official line though, from the Head of Public Information at the Palace of Westminster, is that it’s just called ‘The Green’. Similarly, the Clock Tower that houses Big Ben, the giant 13.5ton bell that strikes the hour, is simply called ‘The Clock Tower’! The Public Galleries are open when the houses are sitting.

Downing Street

Not open to the public although you can peer through the gates at the end of the road. Downing Street was built in 1680. The homes of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are to be found at numbers 10 and 11 respectively. In a break with tradition when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 he moved his family into number 11 where there is more room for his young children. The Chancellor, a bachelor, was given the small flat above the offices in number 10.

Although from the outside number 10 looks like a relatively small building, it has in fact been greatly extended. Inside there are government offices, including the cabinet room where government ministers hold regular meetings, the state dining room where banquets are held and the small private apartment for the prime minister and his or her family.

It used to be possible to walk along Downing Street and stand outside number 10 for a photograph. However in 1989, the then occupant of number 10, one Mrs Thatcher, had huge wrought iron gates erected at the entrance to the street, which effectively closed it to all but those visiting on official business. Opposite the front door of number 10, television cameramen and other media personnel are on permanent watch. Just in case!

The Mall

The Mall is the grand road that leads from Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch, and on to Buckingham Palace. A wide and straight road, it is at its best when being used for royal ceremonies, when Union Jacks, or the national flags of visiting heads of state are flown from flagpoles, along the length of the road. The Mall as we see it today, was designed at the beginning of this century by the architect Aston Webb, who also designed the Victoria Monument and rebuilt the front of Buckingham Palace around the same time.

The Mall cuts through the middle of royal London. On one side is St James’s Park, leading to The Horse Guard’s Parade Ground. On the other side is Green Park and past royal residences, Lancaster House, Marlborough House, Spencer House and St James’s Palace. Also on that side is Clarence House, the home of the Queen Mother, a sort of royal granny flat.

Horse Guards Parade

Horse Guards barracks and the parade ground behind them were built in the 1750’s. At that time this was the only entrance to Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace. It is still considered to be the official entrance to Buckingham Palace, hence the presence of the Queen’s Life Guards.

Two mounted Life Guards from the Household Cavalry keep mounted sentry duty during the day. Through the night just one dismounted sentry stands guard. The guardsmen are not allowed to speak or move but make a great photo opportunity! A Changing the Guard ceremony takes place daily with members of the Household Cavalry. The parade ground is also the venue for the annual Trooping the Colour and Beating Retreat ceremonies.

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace is the London home of The Queen and Prince Philip. Queen Victoria was the first monarch to take up residence here after the architect John Nash transformed it from Buckingham House into a palace. In 1845 Queen Victoria asked for the Palace to be extended to make more room for her growing family of four children. As part of the alterations, Marble Arch, which was originally the entrance to the palace, was moved to a new position at the corner of Hyde Park. The Palace is also the administrative headquarters of the monarchy. The Queen receives visiting heads of state at the palace and it is here that the Queen holds garden parties and bestows knighthoods and other honours.

Foot Guards from the Household Division, in their distinctive red tunics and black bearskins, can be seen on guard duty outside the palace daily. The Changing The Guard ceremony now takes place only every other day in the winter but it is still daily in the summer months.

After a serious fire damaged Windsor Castle in 1993 the Queen allowed the Palace State rooms to be opened to the public for the first time, to help pay the Windsor Castle repair bill. When not away, The Queen and Prince Philip spend most weekends at Windsor Castle, where they enjoy horse riding.

It is well worth a visit to what Londoner’s often call ‘Buck House’ but it can be very tiring. Don’t expect to see the Queen’s private apartments, garden or swimming pool, and you certainly won’t meet Her Majesty. The palace is only open to the public during the summer months, while the Queen is staying at Balmoral, her Scottish castle.

The Tower of London

Begun by William the Conqueror in 1078, The Tower of London is one of the world’s most famous fortified buildings, and now welcomes two million visitors each year. Through its 900year history it has been a palace, a prison, a royal mint and even a zoo! Today the 18acre riverside site is home to the Crown Jewels, the Yeoman Warders (sometimes popularly known as Beefeaters, who are the traditional guards at the tower) and the legendary ravens.

On 19th of May 1536 Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn was beheaded at the tower, having been accused of adultery and incest. Under the circumstances her last words were rather polite. She was beheaded with a clean blow of the axe. The executioner received £24 for his trouble. Prior to being imprisoned and perhaps beheaded, prisoners were often brought to the tower by water through traitors gate. The gate can still be seen from inside the tower and the bricked up entrance to the gate is still visible from the river.

In these days of cost cutting and tendering out, the job of protecting the Crown Jewels is no longer down to the Beefeaters. It is now the responsibility of a private security firm. Look out for the ravens at the Tower of London. Legend has it that if the ravens should ever leave then the White Tower will crumble and the monarchy will crumble too. From time to time to keep up the numbers and avoid testing the legend, new ravens are introduced. They live on a diet of raw meat and biscuits soaked in blood. The ravens are so well looked after that they live for over 4 times the normal lifespan for ravens in the wild. The ravens have had their wings clipped to prevent them from flying away but with all the pampering they receive and such tasty meals on the menu it’s rather unlikely that they would want to leave.

Tower Bridge

One of the city's most celebrated landmarks and possibly the most photographed and painted bridge on earth, Tower Bridge was completed in 1894. Its two towers were joined by glass-covered walkways for the public to use when the bridge opened to river traffic, but these were closed in 1910. Now, in a most imaginative modern development, visitors can once again venture inside the bridge to find one of London's most unusual and exciting attractions,

The Tower Bridge Experience. State of the art technology, including sophisticated animatronic characters, video presentations and interactive computers, are used to bring the bridge to life. Visitors will discover why the bridge was needed and how a design was chosen, and the original Victorian steam engine rooms are also open to show visitors how this working bridge was operated. However, the main attraction has to be the spectacular views over London from the high-level walkways, 140ft above the River Thames. From this unique viewpoint, visitors can see some of London's most well known buildings, such as the Tower of London, St Paul's Cathedral and Canary Wharf.

St Paul's Cathedral

Work on this, the most impressive church in London began in 1675 to a design by SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN. It was built to replace old St Paul's which was destroyed by the GREAT FIRE OF LONDON in 1666. The present building has been luckier. It survived the World War II bombings which flattened a great many of the surrounding buildings.

It took 35 years to complete the building. The imaginative Wren had to fight to get his plans accepted. Wren actually wanted to build the Cathedral just North of where it stands and he wanted the dome to be of copper, double gilded with gold. Unfortunately he was overruled on both counts. At the time not everyone liked Wren's design. This is the fourth Cathedral to stand on this site. The first, a Saxon building, was built in AD 604. The 360ft high dome which dominates the city's skyline is the second largest in the world. The church itself is the largest Protestant church in England. From inside too, the dome is stunning and it is well worth climbing, up to the galleries. The whispering gallery is so named because of the way a whisper will echo there.

Higher still, there is access to the stone gallery on the exterior of the cathedral. At the very top is the Golden Gallery which has arguably the best view in London. The cathedral is packed with fine statues and interior detail. The beautiful woodcarvings are the work of Grinling Gibbons and the exquisite ironwork is by Jean Tijou. The mosaic work is mainly Byzantine and created by Victorian craftsmen to designs by Wren. Many of the rich or great are buried here. Although in many ways a piece of history and a tourist attraction, the cathedral is still very much in use today. It is a national and international religious focus, a masterpiece of architecture and a centre of musical excellence. It was centre stage world-wide, through television, in 1981 for the fairytale marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

If you are interested in tours to St Paul's Cathedral click here. For an open-top bus tour click here. If you are thinking of visiting St Paul's Cathedral, why not purchase a London Pass which will admit you to this and many other London attractions for a single payment; it also includes travel by public transport within the London area on buses, tubes and trains, zones 1 - 6. For details on the London Pass and a list of attractions that it covers, click here.

Old Bailey, The Central Criminal Court

The proper name for these courtrooms is the Central Criminal Court, but they are more commonly known as the Old Bailey, as is the street in which they stand, after the medieval defences that were once on the site. The Old Bailey was built in the early 1900’s on the site of the old Newgate Prison. A diary was found in the prison dating back to 1881. A verse inside read, “Good-bye, Lucy dear, I am parted from you for seven long years. Alf Jones.” Below that a cynic added another verse.

“If Lucy is like most gals, she’ll give a few sighs and moans, but soon will find among your pals, another Alfred Jones.”

The building has been extended to accommodate more courtrooms, but the older courts are still in daily use. Court number one is the most interesting, with its original furniture and dock leading to the detaining cells below. This court is generally used for the most serious of cases. In the past many notorious murderers have been tried in that court, including Dr Crippen, the Victorian wife-killer who was the first man to be caught by use of a radio signal, when he tried to flee London for his home in America.

Each court contains a public gallery open to anyone (aged 14 or over), interested in watching justice in action, and it is well worth a visit. Following a terrorist bomb in the 1980’s strict rules on baggage have been implemented. People carrying large bags may be refused entry. Photography is also strictly forbidden and cameras cannot even be taken inside. This rule also applies to phones, radios and cassette recorders, and unfortunately there are no facilities for leaving such items outside the court.

Opposite the Old Bailey is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Look out for the drinking fountain set in the church wall. It was the first metropolitan public drinking fountain and was originally erected on Holborn Hill in 1859. It was moved to its present position in 1867 when the Holborn Viaduct was built.

Mansion House

This impressive building was built in 1753. Opposite the Bank of England, it is the official home of the Lord Mayor of London. Unfortunately the building is not open to the public. If it were, you could see the cells where prisoners were held awaiting trial in the Mansion House Magistrates Court. Victorian women’s rights campaigner, Mrs Pankhurst was one of those once held in the cells. The Lord Mayor, whose term in office lasts for just a year, gets to be the city’s Chief Magistrate when he’s not hosting huge lavish banquets for visiting heads of state.

The Guildhall

The Guildhall is the City of London’s civic headquarters. The present building was built, for the most part, after the Great Fire of London in 1666. More recently the remains of a Roman amphitheatre were discovered here during redevelopment work in 1987.

New Lord Mayors of London are sworn in inside the Great Hall and it is also the venue for sumptuous banquets given by the Corporation of the City of London for visiting heads of state. In Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers the Guildhall is the setting for the court case of Bardell vs Pickwick. The Guildhall Clock Museum next door has over 700 clocks and watches on show. Building work on a new Guidhall Art Gallery has now been completed.

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Last Updated March 20th 2002



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