Along with most people, I though “Big Ben” referred to the clock on the tall tower attached to Westminster Palace in London. It does not. Big Ben is the name of the bell inside the tower.
The current bell was cast in 1858, as a replacement for the original which cracked during testing. The Times of London in October 1859 reported that the new bell would be named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the President of the Board of Works at the time. Sir Benjamin was rather rotund, as is the bell, so his name was inscribed on the bell, and the rest is, well, you know, history.
So, I’m walking around Westminster Palace, which is where the British Parliament has its chambers, not to be confused with Westminster Abbey, the church next door. I had read that if the flag was flying over the palace that meant that Parliament was in session. The flag was high, the line wasn’t very long and entry was free. Sounds like an opportunity to me.
As you would expect, you have to pass through a security screening to get in, and you are given a Visitor’s Pass which you must keep visible
on your person at all times. This day the House of Commons was in session, and I was escorted to the viewing gallery after giving up my cell phone and camera.
But for me the cool stuff was outside the actual chambers, unless, of course, you find a discussion of the budget proposal for a proposed expansion of the runway at either Heathrow of Stanstead Airports absolutely fascinating. (I didn’t.)
Now, I pride myself on being observant of my surroundings, but I honestly didn’t notice the “No Photographs” signs in the less public areas of the building. That is, until the stern, but polite, man in uniform, complete with bullet-proof vest came up to me and pointed out my error. He told me I needed to delete the photos, and after apologizing profusely, I said I would delete right away while he was watching.
When he saw that I had only taken pictures of the glittering mosaics of the saints in the Central Lobby, he relented and said I could keep them. The Central Lobby is a grand, vaulted space, and was designed as a spot where Members of Parliament could meet their constituents. It is also
Saint George for England
note the slain dragon at his feet
the space where corridors from the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and Westminster Hall meet. The mosaics pay tribute to the four countries that make up the United Kingdom.
Outside the Central Lobby, in fact the first bit of Westminster you encounter when coming in, is Westminster Hall. It was built in 1097, making it the oldest building of the Parliament. Originally used for coronations, and probably anything else the King wanted to do with it, it became used a court of law in the 13th
century. It was here, in 1307, that William Wallace (remember ‘Braveheart’?) was tried and found guilty of treason. Later, in 1535, Sir Thomas was sentenced to death here for refusing to acknowledge King Henry VIII as supreme head of the Church of England.
Westminster reminded me – again! – just how many notable events have taken place in London. As an American, I look on buildings from the 17th
century as old, though I recognize that the pueblos in the American Southwest are far older. But when I see buildings that date back more than a millennium I’m just blown away.
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