The Man in the Wide-Awake Hat Diary

18th June 2012

In Search of the Beautiful … again!

So, Dear Reader, this week, once again I am on the trail of the beautiful. The day started ridiculously early for one who is used to burning the midnight oil … 5 o clock, to be precise … I didn’t even know there were two 5 o clocks in a day … to be truthful I was up at 5 but I didn’t actually wake till about 6, by which time we, the beautiful Suzy and I, were on the road to the Big Smoke. We left behind the sea and the seagulls, who were beginning to shout at the sky with loud raucous voices, and journeyed towards the land that relaxation forgot: London. I have already made myself sound like a yokel, Dear Reader, but the truth of the matter is, I lived in London for many a year before moving to the seaside … so I’m only a pretend yokel really.

Anyway, despite the early hour there were many people on the road heading to work, I always find this surprising, though I shouldn’t I suppose; just because I don’t have to sit in a car or on a bus or a train every morning at 6AM it doesn’t mean that others don’t enjoy the fuming hours they spend trying to get to the place where they earn money to put a roof over their family’s head. So, we arrived in South East London and jumped on a local train with, roughly, twenty-seven thousand six hundred and ninety-seven other people who were equally excited by the prospect of seeing something beautiful … though most of them didn’t appear to be quite as excited as us for some reason. The train trundled towards our destination with all twenty-seven thousand six hundred and ninety-seven people being almost completely silent and staring at their mobile phones which appear to have taken over from the newspaper as an excuse for not talking to people. And, to cut a long commuting story short, we arrived at Portcullis House, Westminster, where we were treated to “airport style security”, which is always fun. And, once they had decided that we weren’t terrorists, they let us join the small group of people who were taking the same tour as us.

We were met by the lovely Lindsay who gave us a few instructions, told us to put our bags into a small cupboard and, after making sure that none of us had a heart condition, led us into the old Underground tunnel that led under the road and into The Palace of Westminster … for it was here, Dear Reader, that we were headed on this fine but breezy day. We walked at the pace of the slowest in the group … which sort of reminded me of the old joke about two men being confronted by a hungry lion. One of the men started putting on a pair of trainers, “They won’t help you outrun a hungry line,” said the other man, “I don’t have to outrun the lion,” said the first, “I only have to outrun you!” After passing policemen and women with guns and kevlar jackets we entered the base of the tower of St Stephen … more often, though erroneously called Big Ben.

Three hundred and fifty-four steps, said Lindsay brightly. I looked around at the man with the walking stick and the lady who was carrying far too much weight and thought, “This could take some time” but actually they were both quite spritely. We began the climb; a spiral staircase that seemed, when you looked up the middle of the staircase, to reach as high as … well, the top of a very tall tower. After five minutes or so of climbing we entered a small room off the side of the staircase and had a five minute pause on some of the most uncomfortable chairs ever known to mankind whilst Lindsay told us some interesting facts about the history of the tower and the people who were involved in its design and construction. I stared out of the slit windows across the rooftops of London … the London eye, BT Tower and lots of other iconic landmarks that seemed to me to be small and insignificant from this height. Then, Lindsay once more at the head of the group, we took off up the stairs like … relatively slow step-climbers who have just realised that we still have quite a long way to go.

We then arrived at the clock room … a fabulous chamber that smelt of grease and oil and brasso and contained the clock train … that’s what they call it Dear Reader … in fact there are three trains … the Going Train, which drives the hands of the clocks … the Chime Train, which rings the quarter bells and the Strike Train which rings Big Ben on the hour. I looked out of the window and saw … the inside of the clock face … I got very excited … I am behind the face of one of the most iconic clocks in the world … how good is that. Lindsay said, “Right, off we go, not far now”. And up we got and started climbing yet more stairs until we arrived in the Bell Tower itself. Four small bells … each about the size of a small car and one big bell, about the size of a big car; Big Ben. We were told about the competition to find the foundry who would cast the bell, the problems they had getting it up the tower and the crack that led to a messy court case and the finished product that should chime E natural but actually chimes E flat … good enough I’d have said.

We heard the bells strike 10 o clock … and then heard very little for the next twenty minutes … I could see Lindsay’s mouth moving but it seemed to me that she was miming to a song that no-one else could hear. We looked across London, Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and a lazy brown river that meandered east and west. Then we were taken back down into the clock room and into a gallery that ran around the building just behind the opal glass and the many tons of cast iron that forms the four clock faces. I am standing, Dear Reader, behind the clock face of Westminster Palace … once again, I was as excited as a small child in a sweet shop … I am inside the clock … I can see through a small crack across the city of London and beyond.

The tower itself … is beautiful … and so iconic of London that it is recognised the world over. Now, Dear Reader, I have a bit of a penchant for old 50s and early 60s science fiction movies … The Day the Earth Stood Still, et al. In every one of those films there is always a section that shows that the aliens have landed all over the world and not just on Jed’s farm in Idaho and they do this by showing a television reporter standing in front of an iconic building that the whole world will recognise … the Eiffel Tower, the Kremlin, the Taj Mahal and, the most geographically obvious of them all … the tower of “Big Ben“, usually with a red London bus going past. And I am standing behind the clock face … how cool is that!

Then came the long climb down and … I didn’t mention this Dear Reader but Lindsay is actually a friend of ours and she took us into the Houses of Commons and Lords … but more of that next time …

I’ll try and put the next episode up in a day or two … it was a fabulous day and I saw some of Pugin’s most stunning designs, many of which he produced during his final illness. Take a peek at the Parliament website www.parliament.uk to see some of his genius.

The other exciting thing that happened is that I’ve been given the e mail of the Education person at the Palace of Westminster and we are going to talk in the next week or so about the possibility of performing The Man in the Wide-Awake Hat … in the Palace; now who is the cool one!

So, come back and visit this very blog in a few days time Dear Reader and I’ll tell you what happened next!