Big Ben is actually the name of the bell in the clock tower, the Houses
of Parliament are more properly called the Palace of Westminster, but other than
that, you probably know where I mean. When most people heat the words "Big Ben" they immediately conjure up an image of the
striking Victorian Gothic structure of the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster
(the Houses of Parliament). Let's clear up a common misconception first; technically speaking, the name "Big Ben" does not
refer to the famous tower, nor to the four huge clock faces of this London landmark;
instead, it refers to the largest of the five bells inside the clock tower. The tower was begun following the disastrous fire
which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster
in 1834. Charles Barry was given the contract to rebuild the Palace, and his designs included a clock tower. The clock tower
of the Palace of Westminster took 13
years to build, and was completed in 1856. The tower is 316 feet high. The hour bell of Big Ben is 8 feet in diameter, weighs
13.5 tons, and was cast in 1858 by George Mears of the Whitechapel Bell foundry. The Houses of Parliament are sometimes referred
to as the Palace of Westminster because
it was built for Edward the Confessor and then, from 1066, it became the main residence of William the Conqueror and his successors
until the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century. In 1834 a disastrous fire destroyed much of the building with the exception
of Westminster Hall, the Cloisters and the Jewel Tower.
Architects were invited to submit plans for the new building in the Gothic or Elizabethan style and Sir Charles Barry was
the winning architect. Because Barry had limited experience of Gothic architecture he teamed up with Augustus Welby Pugin.
Building work commenced in 1837. The House of Lords opened ten years later and four years after that, the Commons also opened.
This is now the home of parliament in the UK. There are two
debating chambers - the House of Commons (elected), and the House of Lords (unelected). Visitors may attend Parliamentary
debates held in the afternoons and evenings - queue at St Stephens entrance. Just across the river from the Palace
of Westminster is the impressive County Hall - ex-home of the Greater London Council.
In the early 1980s when Margarate Thatcher was Prime Minister, she got fed up with London
voting for a socialist Greater London Council, so she simply abolished it. The building has stood empty ever since, though
recently it has been sold to a Japanese consortium for conversion into a hotel. The Palace
of Westminster backs onto Parliament Square,
which also holds Westminster Abbey, where British monarchs are crowned, and where many are buried. For an insight into why
our governments are as they are see Westminster School,
which is in the ground of the Abbey. The abbey was started in about 1045 by King Edward I, who consolidated Norman influences
and the English kingdom. The first great contributor to the abbey in the Middle Ages was Henry III (1216-1272). The abbey
we see today is largely Henry's work. The West Towers
were eventually designed by another master architect, this one considerable better known to us; Sir Christopher Wren, builder
of St. Paul's Cathedral. The towers were finished in 1745, well after Wren's death.
The abbey continues as an active site of worship today. The most famous necropolis (burial place) in Britain.
A recent but already very popular tourist attraction is the London Eye, a giant observation wheel located
in the Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank. The 135 meter tall structure was built as part of London's
millennium celebrations. The structure was designed by the architectural team of David Marks and Julia Barfield, husband and
wife. They submitted their idea for a large observation wheel as part of a competition to design a landmark for the new millennium.
None of the entrants won the competition, but the couple pressed on and eventually got the
backing of British Airways, who sponsored the project. The futuristic looking capsules, accommodating up to 25 passengers,
were transported all the way from France through the chunnel (The Channel Tunnel linking Great Britain and France). Each egg-shaped capsule is 8 meters long and weighs 500kg. The 25 meter long spindle
was built in the Czech Republic. The rim has a diameter of 122m, about 200 times the size of a bicycle wheel. 80 Spokes
connect the rim with the spindle. The observation wheel turns slow enough for people to embark while it is moving. A complete
turn takes about 30 minutes. Thanks to the construction of the glass capsules on the outer side of the rim, the passengers
have a great 360° view over London.