The recent news that Big Ben would be silent for the next few years, as the famous Great Westminster Clock Tower and bells underwent refurbishment, brought back a fond memory. Being there had been a high point, but only one among many such ‘high points’ that I have experienced.
Since I first climbed the steep, iron ladder in my local church in Clonskeagh many years ago I have been fascinated with the views from such tall buildings and the perspective each offered. At the end of that maiden ascent, my first ‘high,’ I was filled with nervous excitement as I looked out over the Dublin Mountains; all the way into the city and across the blue waters of the bay to Howth. It was better than I had expected, and I have never lost that sense of anticipation of what it was like ‘going to the top’.
Over the years I have had the good fortune to visit many places and always tried to make time and climb to the top of local towers and steeples.
From the top of the Torre di Lamberti in Verona the red-tiled roofs stretched below me like the cover on a great jigsaw box. The skyline of New York was stunning in the early, morning light from the top of the Empire State Building, and the Golden Gate Bridge was a tiny speck in the distance from the observation platform of the Campanile at Berkeley. However, a nighttime climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe where a cold, whipping wind brought some unease, the lights of Paris sparkling in their pre-Christmas splendour made it worthwhile.
Sometime later when I worked in Westminster, I used to walk past and invariably looked up at its most iconic landmark, the Great Westminster Clock Tower . Being part of the Palace of Westminster there is a high level of security but my boss, thankfully, arranged for me to join a group of sightseers. I was excited and, on the appointed day, strained my neck looking up at the famous tower as it lay against a clear, blue sky. High above, the north clock face sparkled as the hubbub of anticipation spread among the group.
Our guide led us into a small entrance where he told us about the history of the tower and its impressive statistics. It stands 315 feet high and the four clock faces were the largest of their kind in the world when erected. Each is twenty-three feet across and is made of over three hundred pieces of opal glass. The minute hand alone is fourteen feet long, and looked every inch of it when I passed by and looked down through the gap in the face and imagined Richard Hannay hanging from it in the climax of film The Thirty Nine Steps. Higher still, and onto the last of the 334 limestone steps, we came into the small belfry where five bells silently waited. There are four small bells that ring on the quarter hour and the Great Bell, better known as Big Ben, which strikes on the hour.
‘Right, ladies and gentlemen,’ said our guide ‘it’s almost noon, so please get ready for a lot of noise. It’s pretty loud.’ He grinned, placed his hands on his ears and some of the group copied him. I was standing about four feet from Big Ben, with only a wire mesh preventing me from reaching over and tapping it. It’s huge, weighing over thirteen tons and is over seven feet tall. Up close it’s truly impressive but the sound, when it came, was awesome.
First came the quarter bell and some people cheered, their eyes lighting up excitedly. A woman beside said something but I couldn’t hear her, while all around people were giggling. Then there was a slight pause before the hammer struck Big Ben for the first of its twelve rings. The noise was deafening and I felt my chest and head almost explode with the din. After seven or eight rings I started to laugh, and couldn’t stop. The woman tapped me on the arm and shouted ‘What is it?’
‘I was wondering where Trevor McDonald was,’ I cried, wiping tears away. The sound was incredible but the bell’s purity of tone left only a fond memory. I still enjoy going ‘to the top’ but the experience of visiting Big Ben will live long, and loud, in my memory. Ding dong indeed!