Where is it?
Like a large number of the properties on the Monopoly board, Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue are both in Westminster, and as they’re slap bang next to each other, have covered them both in one sitting. They’re actually pretty much as close to central London as you can get as they both meet at the roundabout at the south end of Trafalgar Square, which is officially the centre of London. Whitehall runs south from Trafalgar Square, morphing in to Parliament Street before reaching Parliament Square (although on my map, I’ve called the whole thing Whitehall). Northumberland Avenue has a similar starting point and cuts south easterly for about 350 metres towards the River Thames.
What’s the Story?
Whitehall takes its name from a 16th century palace originally built by King Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor; Cardinal Wolsey, on the site of York Place. When Henry VIII removed Wolsey from power in 1530 he took the liberty of acquiring the palace, changing the name to Whitehall (thought to be the colour of the stone), from which point on it became a Royal Palace, used by subsequent Monarchs until it burned down in 1698. Over the years it grew considerably, boasting some 1500 rooms and was one of the largest palaces in Europe. The Royal Court moved away and gradually, the area became populated by government buildings to such an extent that ‘Whitehall’ is now a byword for government.
Northumberland Avenue was in the 17th century the grounds of a large mansion built at the beginning of the century for Henry Howard (1st Earl of Northampton) and in 1642 became Northumberland House when the wonderfully named Algernon Percy (10th earl of Northumberland) married one of Howard’s distant relatives and moved in. In the late 19th century, the house was demolished to make way for the avenue that exists today, largely lined with super duper hotels.
How do I get there?
As both Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue are situated in the centre of London, you have no shortage of transport links. There’s an entrance / exit to Charing Cross Underground station at the north end of Whitehall / Trafalgar Square, but Embankment and Westminster Underground Stations are just a few minutes away.
What’s it like now?
Much of Whitehall is dominated by government buildings of one sort or another such as the MOD and the Cabinet Office. You’ll also pass Horse Guards and Downing Street and probably find yourself fighting through crowds of tourists and kids on school trips. Northumberland Avenue is perfectly nice, if not a little bland. You’re more likely to walk down it en route to somewhere else.
Where would I stay?
My suggestions are always based on places I’ve actually been to, generally to pick people up who have booked me for a private tour. Being the kind of area that it is, you’re unlikely to find much budget accommodation. Nestling in between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue you’ll find the Royal Horseguards Hotel and the Corinthia London, both luxury hotels. On Northumberland Avenue itself you’ll find the Club Quarters Hotel, Citadines Trafalgar Square and The Grand at Trafalgar Square, whilst heading towards Big Ben and Parliament Square you have the London Marriott Hotel County Hall and the Park Plaza, Westminster Bridge. Both of these last two suggestions are on the south side of Westminster Bridge. If you’re looking for something close to Westminster Abbey, then just by St James’s Underground Station are St Ermin’s Hotel and Conrad London St. James and for those looking for something a bit kinder on the wallet, then I’ve also been to the Hub by Premier Inn, London Westminster.
What’s of Interest?
How long have you got?
A mid 18th century stables for the Household Cavalry (or Queen’s Life Guard) who still stand guard each day between 10am and 4pm. They’re also the only ceremonial guards left standing where tourists can actually have their photo taken with them, and as such are guarded by armed Police. That’s right; the guards are guarded by guards. They do their own ‘change’ each morning, separate to the more famous ‘Changing The Guard’ at Buckingham Palace, and if you get there at 4pm you can watch the final inspection.
Household Cavalry Museum
If you walk through the courtyard, under the arch on to Horse Guards Parade, then the Household Cavalry Museum is on your right, and as you’d expect, explains the history of the regiment. The museum is actually housed inside the stables and a nice touch is that they inserted a glazed partition so you can watch a sort of behind the scenes of the Queen’s Life Guard either preparing for their hour long shift, or returning.
Horse Guards Parade
A ceremonial parade ground where on the Queen’s official birthday (she has two), she inspects her troops at ‘Trooping the Colour’. It also hosted the beach volleyball during the 2012 London Olympics. You get a nice view across to St James’s Park, the back wall of Downing Street to your left and the Grade I listed 18th century Admiralty House to your right, juxtaposed against a concrete block of a building called ‘the Citadel’ which was actually built at the start of WWII as a top secret bunker.
On the opposite side of Whitehall to Horse Guards is Banqueting House, a large colonnaded building which was built in 1622 and is the only surviving part of the old Whitehall Palace. It was where King Charles I had his head chopped off in 1649 and if you go in (which you can for a small fee) the entire ceiling (or at least a canvas made to look like the ceiling) was painted by Flemish artist and diplomat Peter Paul Rubens in 1636.
Women of World War II memorial
Due to the presence of the MOD and the Old War Office building, Whitehall has its fair share of ‘dead white men’ statues, so rather than mention all of those, thought I’d bring to your attention my favourite; the Women of World War II memorial, which stands over 20ft tall and is adorned by a large number of uniforms worn by women in various roles (mostly previously occupied by men) during WWII. It was only unveiled in 2005 and I think its really simple, evocative and poignant.
Downing Street was built in 1682 by Sir George Downing, but only a small section survives. It is quite possibly one of the most famous, but also innocuous streets in the world, and since 1732, No. 10 Downing Street has been home to the Prime Minister. No. 11 is used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, known by everyone else as the ‘finance minister’. Up until 1989 you could merrily wander down Downing Street and have your photo taken standing outside No. 10. Not surprisingly, you can now only glimpse the street from behind huge gates under the watchful eye of armed Police. Security was further stepped up when the IRA tried to mortar bomb No. 10 from the parade ground behind in the early 1990s.
Originally built by Edwin Lutyens to commemorate ‘the Glorious Dead’ of WWI, the Cenotaph is now used to remember all wars in which British servicemen and women fought. If you visit in November, the base will be buried beneath wreaths of poppies laid for Armistice Day.
Churchill War Rooms
As you cross King Charles Street you’ll see signs for the ‘Cabinet War Rooms’, although they’re now called the ‘Churchill War Rooms’, one of the branches of the Imperial War Museum. Secreted beneath the Treasury Building, the underground complex of rooms and corridors were used by the British government as a command centre throughout WWII. To cut a long story short, at the end of the war in 1945, the doors were shut and everything was just left as it was. They still have maps with pins stuck in the same place as they were 75 years ago, meeting rooms set out and the bedrooms of government ministers and their families. It’s a fascinating museum, and well worth a visit, particularly if you have an interest in WWII and / or Winston Churchill.
Big Ben and Houses of Parliament
This is what everyone knows it as, but Big Ben is actually the bell inside what only recently became the Elizabeth Tower and the adjoining building is officially the ‘Royal Palace of Westminster’. The old palace burned down in 1834 and the current late 19th century gothic revivalist building was designed by Charles Barry. The history of the building actually spans over 900 years, which you can learn all about on the tours they run of our UK parliament, which begin in the magnificent medieval great hall. If you want to get a photo that encompasses the whole building and Big Ben, then you’ll need to cross to the other side of Westminster Bridge.
One of the few surviving parts of the old Palace of Westminster; a 14th century stub of a moated building which as the name suggests was once a lock up for valuables. Over its considerable history its had a number of other uses, so why not pop in and find out, courtesy of English Heritage who manage it.
Undoubtedly on most peoples must visit lists, Westminster Abbey is a World Heritage Site with over a thousand years of history, a treasure trove of artefacts, the resting place for over 300 of the great and the good (or not so good) of British history, the scene of every coronation since 1066, 16 Royal weddings and loads more. Basically, the place is oozing history and if you can, check out the brand new ‘The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries’ which amongst other things offer absolutely stunning views down the entire length of the Abbey. Also, if you want to experience the building without paying to enter or attend a service, pop along to Evensong.
We’re very lucky in London with the sheer number of parks and gardens we have at our disposal, and in Whitehall Gardens which runs along Embankment between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue you’ll find what is quite possibly (especially during the summer months) one of my favourites. I know very little about flora and fauna but even I can tell this garden is chock full of an amazing array of shrubs and flowers. A few years ago I happened to be wandering through Whitehall Gardens with a couple of botanists from New Zealand who spotted four plants and flowers indigenous to their country that they’d never seen outside of New Zealand.
Benjamin Franklin House
Located on Craven Street (just behind the Sherlock Holmes pub) is the only surviving Benjamin Franklin residence in the world. He lived at the address for 16 years. Now a small museum, groups of visitors are shown around by an actress pretending to be his landlady. Also, if you walk to the far end of the street, you’ll pass the house that Herman Melville lived in, and see a smallish green shed on the side of the road selling snacks. It’s actually a listed building and one of the few surviving cabmen’s shelters in London; small huts that started popping up in the 1870s so that cabbies could tie up their horses (note the bar running around the side) and get out of the rain.
If you wander across either Hungerford Bridge or the adjacent Golden Jubilee Bridge to the other side of the River Thames you’ll find yourself in an area known as the Southbank. Badly bombed during WWII, the concrete brutalist architecture attests to post-war redevelopment. The Royal Festival Hall was the first building to be built in 1951 and the other arts and concert venues followed and are known collectively as the Southbank Centre. If you walk in the opposite direction back towards Westminster bridge you’ll pass the London Eye, the London Dungeon, the Sea Life Centre and within St Thomas’s Hospital, the Florence Nightingale Museum.
Eating and Drinking
It’s a touristy area which means the majority of pubs and cafes should probably be avoided. However, if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, just off Northumberland Avenue is a pub called ‘The Sherlock Holmes’. It’s pretty bog standard and will be brimming with tourists, but if you go upstairs, then there’s an entire recreation of the apartment that Holmes shared with Watson which was actually an exhibit in the 1951 Festival of Britain.
If you’re near Westminster Abbey and need a quick snack, then Pickles Sandwich Bar on Old Queen Street seems to be one of the few non-chain establishments in the area. Close by is the Two Chairmen, a pub which has a dining room upstairs, serves good food and although a 2-minute walk from both Westminster Abbey and the Churchill War Rooms, is located in such a place that you’re unlikely to find too many tourists in there.
Since I began Bowl Of Chalk London walking tours five and a half years ago I have continued to offer three set walks each weekend which operate on a 'pay what you want' basis. Each walk generally lasts about 2.5 / 3 hours. They are as follows:
Saturday morning - Trafalgar Square to St Paul's cathedral.
This walk begins in the tourist hot spot of Trafalgar Square, taking in the square itself, Nelson's Column and the National Gallery building. Although we don't venture around the 'sights' of Westminster, Big Ben is visible at the bottom of Whitehall. After visiting the statue of Charles I next to the official centre of London, we have of late, passed Benjamin Franklin's House, threaded our way through Victoria Embankment Gardens and up in to the bustling Covent Garden and St Paul's, the Actors' church. From here we make our way around Aldwych, passing the church of St Clement Danes and the Royal Courts of Justice, in to the City of London via Fleet Street. We usually veer off through the maze of alleyways that brings us to Dr Johnson's House, the famous statue of his beloved cat, Hodge and past the famous Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub. Back on Fleet Street, we pass the church of St Bride's, and up towards St Paul's cathedral.
Saturday Afternoon - St Paul's to Monument (via Bankside & Borough)
This walk begins by St Paul's cathedral, through the churchyard and on to the Millennium Bridge, taking us over the River Thames towards the Tate Modern on the south side. Here we pass by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the site of the original Elizabethan Theatre which opened on Bankside in 1599, and along to the usually heaving Borough Market. We usually pop in to the 17th century George Inn on Borough High Street before heading up on to London Bridge, which offers a great view of the iconic Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the H.M.S Belfast before finishing at the Monument, commemorating the Great Fire of London, 1666.
Sunday - East London
The Sunday walk is very street art heavy, but does include historical elements. We often begin near Old Street, including Bunhill Fields Cemetery, where the likes of Daniel Defoe, William Blake and John Bunyan are buried. We pass the Wesleyan Chapel on City Road before heading in towards Shoreditch, which although is now a plethora of cafes, boutique shops and clubs, was in the 19th century, the centre of London's furniture trade. We usually stop off at Arnold Circus, the UK's first ever council estate, then bypassing the incredibly busy Brick Lane make our way towards Spitalfields with its fascinating Huguenot, Jewish and Bangladeshi heritage. Obviously the street art changes pretty regularly, but I tend (as with all my tours) to talk about things that interest me, and street art is no different. I'll undoubtedly point out and talk about Banksy, Ben Wilson (the chewing gum man), Christiaan Nagel, Bambi, Roa, Jimmy C and Thierry Noir ... amongst others.
If you're in London one weekend and think that one of these walks might appeal (or fit in with your schedule) then please send me a message via the contact form. You won't actually know where we're meeting until I send you all the details confirming the walk and how many places you'd like to book. I do this so I can keep an eye on numbers. Please don't try just turning up. You'll see from the photos that it could be just you, two people, four, eight or more. Unless someone books loads of people at once, it probably won't be that big a group.
Please check the dates on the website homepage to make sure the walk you'd like to join is running, as although it is pretty continuous, there are occasional changes.
Last week, I returned from seeing family in Germany and as it was a clear, sunny day and I had managed to secure the all important window seat on the plane, took the opportunity of taking a few photos of London as we flew in to Heathrow. We pretty much flew straight over the Shard, which currently boasts the most spectacular views in London, but from my birds eye view, high above London's skyline, I would at that particular moment, beg to differ.
Below, you can see the Shard (top left-ish), a tiny pin prick really with the ribbons of railway lines cutting through south London in to London Bridge station. You can also see London Bridge next to it, and to the east, Tower Bridge spanning the Thames, with the HMS Belfast, moored, as it always is between the two. The Tower of London (just north of Tower Bridge) which when it was built in the 11th century was the tallest building in London is perhaps only visible due to the fact that it has open space surrounding it.
On the next photo we have now moved down the Thames a bit, and you can see the Houses of Parliament with the iconic Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, the Millennium Wheel and Horse Guards Parade to the top left.
Finally, a rare view of Buckingham Palace with its rather large garden. With Green Park and St James's Park on either side, it seems to be nestling in a clearing in the middle of a forest, rather than being stuck in the middle of London.
If you are under the impression, that I only do my regular 'pay what you want' weekend walks around London, then I should perhaps correct that assumption. During the week I also do what I call 'Private Walks' which can pretty much take any shape or form. I often split them up in to either half day or full days walks for which I suggest a fee, although at the end of the day, I just like showing people around London so even if you just have a spare hour and a half then we can usually sort something out.
The 'Private Walks' could be for families, couples or people traveling on their own. I can accommodate work outings, birthdays and holiday makers, first time visitors to London looking to get acquainted with the city and see the 'sights' or people already familiar with the metropolis who are perhaps keen to explore an area they don't know too well. Here are some of these tailor made walks around London that I did in January.
First up we have the Dingeman's who were visiting from Holland. We did a walk around Westminster, and you can see them standing outside the iconic 'Big Ben' and Houses of Parliament. On the right is Beth, Paula and Matt who were visiting from Canada. We predominantly did a tour of Borough and Bankside and I took the photo of them inside the rather splendid Southwark cathedral.
Pall from Iceland contacted me about doing a walk around east London, soaking in its mixture of migrant history and street art, a by product of the areas more recent trendification (which I don't think is a word) and subsequent gentrification. This in itself is something that has been in the UK press recently as this change; the influx of media types, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, clubs and hipsters is to apparently be echoed in the long running and popular television soap opera 'Eastenders', bringing it in to the 21st century. I took the photo of Pall and his family in front of one of street artist Jimmy C's portraits.
During the month I also did two birthday walks. The first was in central London for the extended Robertson clan who ranged in age from I think about 15 months to 70. I dropped them off at St Paul's cathedral, where they had a table booked nearby for the birthday lunch. The second was for Helen and friends celebrating her 40th birthday. They were staying near Aldgate in east London, so I met them down there and explored around the fascinating area of Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Hoxton.
The other week I did an all day extravaganza tour of London with Yong Hao who was visiting from Singapore. I met him in Green Park and we spent the morning around Westminster, which included some of the main London 'sights' like Buckingham Palace, St James's Palace, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square. We then took the Underground to the Tower of London and worked our way back through the City to St Paul's and beyond, through Fleet Street and Lincoln's Inn. We found time to pop in to see the Roman Amphitheatre situated beneath Guildhall Art Gallery and a trip up to the top of the Monument which gives great views across London ... where I took his photo.
Finally, two quite different walks. The first with the rather excellent Ellen and Sandy from Canada, who had lived in London in the 1970's and explored around east London with me. they're standing in front of one of French street artist Clet Abraham's altered street signs (the no entry sign actually says 'freedom'). And ... last but not least, we have Christine and her son, over for a couple of weeks from the States in the lovely Whitehall Gardens, just next to the Thames in Westminster.
So ... if you're in London and would like me to show you around, then please get in touch. There's a lot to see in London, a lot to explore and hopefully you'll have fun along the way too.
Parliament Square was first constructed by Charles Barry in 1868, and despite its name (the 'square' part), became the first modern day roundabout in 1926. It sits flanked by Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, St Margaret's Church, the imposing Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court and numerous government offices. Despite its location, it is notoriously difficult to access, and unless you're prepared to play chicken with the ceaseless waves of traffic (which I wouldn't recommend), your best bet is to use the crossing on the Abbey side. There are ten statues in the vicinity, and eight on the square itself, but who are the eight on the roundabout?
Starting in front of Big Ben, you'll find a statue that I really like; the rather bullish, compact figure of Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965), wrapped in an overcoat, with stick in hand. The statue, by Ivor Roberts-Jones was due to be unveiled by the Queen in 1973, but when it came to it, she let Churchill's widow, Clementine do the honours. During the May Day demonstrations in 2000, Churchill was unceremoniously given a new haircut, a Mohican, fashioned from a piece of turf.
Next up is David Lloyd George (1863-1841) who was Prime Minister from 1916-1922. Again, I really like this statue. It's by Glynn Williams and with Lloyd George's coat billowing and his hat held in his right hand, it seems incredibly modern and dynamic. This could be because in the grand scheme of things, it's pretty new, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2007. Lloyd George was a Welshman, and true to form, he is standing on a plinth made of Welsh slate. The statue itself was a contentious issue, as David Lloyd George some what blotted his copy book by selling honours to boost his party funds.
After passing the statue of David Lloyd George you will come across a statue of a man who looks like he has been caught in the midst of ice skating. The likely-hood of this being the case is minimal as it shows Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) who was the South African Prime Minister during WWII and the only person to sign the peace treaties ending both the First and Second World Wars. Similar to his Welsh neighbour, he stands on a plinth made of South African granite.
Moving on from Smuts, we delve back in time to a statue that was erected in 1876 by Thomas Woolner. It is of former Prime Minister, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmeston (1784-1865). Nicknamed 'Pam', he was by all accounts a bit of a ladies' man, and died two days before his 82nd birthday. Apparently his last words were "Die, my dear doctor? That's the last thing I shall do!".
Moving to the left, you'll find Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley, otherwise known as the 14th Earl of Derby (1799-1869) who became the first person to hold the position of Prime Minister three times and is still to this day, the longest serving leader of the Conservative party. He also helped to abolish slavery and interestingly, the statue was unveiled by Benjamin Disraeli in 1874. Disraeli, is now his next door neighbour in the square. There are four reliefs around the plinth, which depict various important moments in Derby's career.
So, Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-81) was Prime Minister twice and a favourite of Queen Victoria. The statue is generally regarded as being an incredibly good likeness, which is perhaps not surprising seeing as the sculptor, Mario Raggi had made his bust from life, shortly before Disraeli died. On the photograph below you can see the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the background. It's a copy of a statue in Chicago by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and occupies the same patch on the other side of the road as the statue of George Canning.
Next up we have Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), resplendent in a pair of incredibly tight trousers; a man, who many people forget served twice as Prime Minister. The main reason for this is that he is predominantly associated with formulating the first united police force in 1829, which is also why policemen and women today are still known in the UK as 'Bobbies'. Bob, being short for Robert of course ... in case you didn't known that.
Last but not least is a man who needs no introduction, and is the only one on Parliament Square who is still alive (at the time of writing). It is of course Nelson Mandela who was born in 1918 and former president of South Africa. The statue was apparently originally intended to be situated outside South Africa house by Trafalgar Square, but was erected in its current position in 2007. Mandela was there himself for the unveiling, no doubt wearing a similar floral shirt to that worn by his statue.
Now, assuming you've read this far, it can't have escaped your notice that there are currently no statues of females in Parliament Square. However, with this in mind, apparently at the unveiling of his own statue, Nelson Mandela noted that upon visiting the square with his fellow activist, Oliver Tambo, forty five years earlier, they had joked whether a statue of a black person would ever stand in the same vicinity of Jan Christian Smuts. Well, he lived to see that day. There's plenty more room, so it'll be interesting to see who's next.
If you are visiting London, then it's entirely possible (perhaps even inevitable) that you will visit Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and the rather iconic Big Ben, all of which reside in an area called Westminster. Once you have done this, and if you have a bit of spare time, I can highly recommend exploring the streets just west of Parliament.
Moving away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist hot spot of Parliament Square and the centre of government, in just a couple of minutes you'll find yourself in a startlingly quiet enclave of beautiful early 18th century streets. For me, the icing on the cake is Smith Square, developed in the 1720's and dominated by the former church of St John the Evangelist which seems to be bursting out of the meagre space it has been allocated.
Built by architect Thomas Archer between 1713-1728, St John's is today regarded as one of the finest examples of English Baroque architecture going. The building served as a parish church for about 230 years and since the 1960's, St John's has been a concert hall, which still plays host to a plethora of internationally renowned musicians, singers and orchestras all year round.
The building has the rather unusual nickname of 'Queen Anne's footstool', and legend has it that when Archer asked the ailing Queen Anne (she died in 1714) how she would like the new church to look, he caught her in a petulant mood. In response to his question, she kicked over her footstool, pointed at it and said "Like that!". St John's does indeed have four towers (or sticky-uppy bits, as I like to call them) pointing upwards from each corner, giving the building the appearance of an upturned footstool.
Charles Dickens described the church in his novel 'Our Mutual Friend' as "appearing to be some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic on its back with its legs in the air." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is certainly striking and domineering.
The church itself has not had an easy ride of it over the years. In 1742 the interior was damaged by fire and thirty one years later it was struck by lighting. In 1815 the towers and roof had to be stabilised, and then in 1941 it was hit and gutted by an incendiary bomb during the Blitz and remained open to the elements for the next twenty years until it got the love and care it deserved to bring it to its current incarnation. Talking of the Blitz (as I was) if you wander down Lord North Street (picture above) see if you can spot the old WWII public shelter signs still visible on the walls, which during the 1940's directed local residents to underground shelters.
When visiting London for the first time, it can be a bit tricky knowing what to do, where to go and what to see. However, I imagine that for the vast majority of these people ... if not all, seeing 'Big Ben' is very probably incredibly near to the top of their 'must do' list. It's situated in Westminster and I've discovered recently, that many people (upon seeing Big Ben) are surprised that it's actually attached to another building. The many replica Big Ben's that line the shelves of the mildly rubbish souvenir shops in central London, very much give the false impression that it is a stand alone clock tower.
The second surprise that first time visitors get, is to learn that 'Big Ben' is not in fact the name given to either clock, or the tower (it was renamed last year, the Elizabeth Tower) but the massive hour bell inside. As with most things in London its very existence and indeed the nickname which is known throughout the world comes with a story, a bit of controversy and also a sprinkling of uncertainty.
To rewind the clock (pun intended) a few years, the medieval Palace of Westminster or the Houses of Parliament as it is known was burned down in 1834 (that's another story). The epic rebuilding was undertaken by a guy called Charles Barry and in 1844, it was decided that it might be nice if a rather grand tower and clock were to be added to one end. To make life even more difficult it was also decided that the first stroke of the hour bell should register the time, correct to within 1 second per day and telegraph its performance twice a day to be recorded at the Greenwich Observatory. For this reason, clock makers were understandably reluctant to get involved and it was 10 years before a certain Edmund Becket Denison finally had his design completed.
The bell or bells, were an entirely separate problem and Barry had specified that only a 14 ton hour bell would suffice. No one in Britain had ever cast a bell that large, but Denison (not known for his bell making skills) refused to be outdone and insisted on not only his own design for the great bell, but the recipe for the bell metal. Like the initial contract to design and make the clock, bell founders were not chomping at the bit to bid for the contract. Eventually it was made by John Warner & Sons at Stockton-on-Tees and not only did the bell end up being a whopping 16 tons, but it cracked upon being tested. The task of casting the bell, then fell upon the shoulders of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and its master bellfounder, George Mears.
It took two weeks to break up the old bell, three furnaces to melt it down and once the mould had been filled with molten metal, took twenty days for it to solidify and cool. Transporting the bell (just shy of 14 tons) to Westminster was a major event. Traffic was stopped and sixteen horses dragged it through the streets which had been decorated and were lined with cheering crowds. It rang for the first time on the 31st May 1859 and it is at this point that the name 'Big Ben' first seeped in to public consciousness. It is said that as Parliament were trying to settle on a suitable name for the bell, Benjamin Hall, a large man, who was affectionately known as 'Big Ben' gave a rather long speech on the subject. At the end, someone shouted out "Why not call it Big Ben and have done with it?". It would appear, the name stuck.
Two months later 'Big Ben' cracked. The cause, is thought to be because Denison had used a hammer more than twice the weight specified by the more qualified George Mears. The bell was out of service for the next three years, a lighter hammer was fitted and the bell turned to present an undamaged section to the hammer, which still gives it the same (apparently) distinctive sound that we can hear today. Denison refused to accept responsibility for the mistake and blamed Mears. The whole saga ended in court ... twice and Denison lost on both occasions.
However, the very famous nickname given to the bell is often disputed. Just the other day, a friend of mine said "So ... Big Ben ... who do you think it's named after?". He believes it was named after the Victorian bare knuckle boxer Ben Caunt, who as a rather large specimen and heavyweight champion, was known as 'Big Ben'.
Don't forget, you can still visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where they offer tours and an insight in to their unique 500 year history.
I've spent a fair bit of time recently showing people around Westminster, which is obviously a hot spot for tourists, as Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament (or the Palace of Westminster) are right next to each other. The latter also includes the iconic 'Big Ben' which everyone is familiar with. As I have mentioned before, 'Big Ben' is actually the name given to the bell inside the clock tower. I shall write a separate post about 'Big Ben', but thought that for now, I'd mention the company that made it, back in 1858. They're called the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
In case you're unfamiliar with London's geographical layout, Whitechapel is an area in east London, generally most associated with being the location of the infamous Jack The Ripper murders which took place in 1888. As you can see from the above photo, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry have been making bells for quite a long time, since 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I (and maybe actually even longer). In fact, they've been making making all sorts of bells for so long, that they've made it in to the Guinness Book of Records, listed as the oldest manufacturing company in Britain.
The company are still making bells of all sizes and inhabit a Grade II listed, 17th century building on a busy east London road, surrounded by much more modern neighbours. 'Big Ben' is probably the most famous bell they ever made and was also the largest one they've ever cast, weighing in at a whopping 13.5 tonnes. Back in 1752 they also made the Liberty Bell, which is in Philadelphia, itself pretty iconic and a symbol of American independence. Both, you might note are famously cracked. Obviously, not the fault of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
It hasn't always been plain sailing over their 444 year history and by the 1930's there seems to have been a bit of a bell slump. However, the Second World War had the strange effect of galvanising the company's fortunes. During the war, they temporarily stopped their fascination with bells and were charged with the task of casting parts for submarines, then due to the immense devastation heaped upon the country's churches during the Blitz, they were called upon to replace the bells that had been lost. The demand was so huge, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry had a three year waiting list.
More recently, the company made the bells rung during the Queen's Jubilee river pageant and of course the giant bell that featured in last years Olympic Opening Ceremony. They no longer have the capacity for casting such a large bell, and that particular one, inscribed with a quote from William Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and reads "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises" was cast in Holland, to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry's specifications.
The good news, is that if you so desire, you can visit them. Monday to Friday you can mooch around their small museum and on a couple of weekends each month, they provide tours of the workshops and the foundry. The details for these are on their website. If you visit, you can't fail to notice that the entrance door is flanked by a cross section template of 'Big Ben', so it'll give you a good idea, just how big it really is.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.