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.
When I told my father the other day, that I'd been to The Jewel Tower in Westminster, he said "Aaahh ... the place you see on the news next to Parliament", which is quite true. College Green is where news reporters stand to interview MPs and do their straight to camera pieces with the impressive backdrop of Charles Barry's Houses of Parliament behind them. Quite often you can see the Jewel Tower creeping in to shot to the left, but largely spends its time in the shadow of its more famous, but much younger neighbour.
Built in 1365 within the private palace of King Edward III, the Jewel Tower began life as a huge safe, a secure repository for the most valuable possessions of the Royal Household. The palace took up the whole area, now occupied by the Houses of Parliament and Parliament Square, with the Jewel Tower, situated in a secluded garden to the west and hemmed in by a moat, encroaching on land owned by Westminster Abbey. You can get a good idea of the layout of the area from the picture below.
In the same way that the Queen today travels between her different homes, her predecessors would move between palaces, Royal manors and castles dotted around the country, or indeed visit friends and courtiers in their own houses. Such trips would have involved taking a huge retinue of people, but also items like plates, bowls, cups, goblets, tapestries and other decorative objects and things that might be needed. The job of the 'keeper of the Wardrobe in the Privy Palace of Westminster', sometimes known as 'keeper of jewels and gold and silver vessels' was based at the Jewel Tower and had the responsibility of making an inventory of everything that left, supervise the goods being loaded on to carts and barges and most importantly, to make sure that everything was returned.
When Henry VIII became King and the Royal Household moved away from the Palace of Westminster, the Jewel Tower effectively became a big junk store. On his death in 1547, an inventory was taken of 'tholde Juelhous at Westminster' and was found to be full of old clothes, bed-hangings, linen, gaming tables and old children's toys and dolls. In the 17th Century, the robust ragstone building became a store for Parliamentary records and by the early 18th century it was decided in a meeting chaired by Sir Christopher Wren that the Jewel Tower needed some serious repairs, which also included protection from fire.
The Jewel Tower managed to survive the fire of 1834 that burned down the Houses of Parliament, causing the loss of pretty much all of the old medieval palace. The new buildings, which you can still see today took about 26 years to complete and as we move in to the Victorian period, the the Jewel Tower gained its third use. A larger building was required for the storage of records, which Charles Barry accommodated in the design of the new Parliament and more specifically, the Victoria Tower, which still stands directly opposite the Jewel Tower today.
In 1864 the Standards Department of the Board of Trade, sometimes known as the 'weights and measures' moved in to the Jewel Tower and set about trying to determine the definitive values of units of size, weight and volume. Basically, these are the people who decided exactly how much beer goes in to a pint of beer ... amongst other things. They remained there until 1938, and in fact on the ground floor of the building today they have a display case showing the different measures or 'standards'.
The Jewel Tower was badly damaged by incendiary bombs during WWII, and the surrounding area has changed quite radically since then, meaning that the building itself, now an 'English Heritage' site, has been excavated, preserved and opened to the public. If you do visit, each of the three floors give you an insight in to the building's incredible 650 years of history, and next time you're watching the news, keep an eye out for it behind the reporters on Abingdon Street Gardens, otherwise known as College Green.
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.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.