In more than 50 years of travel to about 130 countries there is only one tour I’ve not been able to get on.
Bent to the waist creeping in stifling heat to the interior chamber of the Mayan home of the Sacred Jaquar inching around the windswept tip top of the U.S. Capitol building under the very feet of Lady Freedom tipping in pirogues as black Amazon water nudged to the edges in Brazilian jungles seeking desert elephants along Namibia’s isolated skeleton coast — all were difficult tours but with persistence I got on them.
Only London’s most recognizable symbol eluded my repertoire: Big Ben the tall elegant clock outside Parliament which offers free tours climbing up inside the clock tower. My exact cup of tea.
Eagerly I read the times online — weekdays at 9 a.m. 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Gather at the foyer of Porcullis House. The tour takes 75 minutes. It’s free but you cannot sell raffle tickets or personal gifts during the tour. OK.
Then I read at the bottom: Tours restricted to UK citizens or permanent residents who have a working or residency permit for a period of years and a permanent address in the UK. Security was the reason given.
”Security checks cannot be carried out on foreign nationals” the material entoned.
Well I reasoned if a famous American-born political or entertainment celebrity wanted to climb Big Ben I bet they would merit an exception so why not me?
Further I am ”press.” I want to write about my trip for a newspaper. There usually is a media exception. Freedom of the press and all that. And if that’s not sufficient — street cred we won that revolution. Remember 1776? Ha
Hotel concierges in any country can work miracles. I began with Tiago Ferreira concierge at London’s Hilton Courthouse Hotel who took up the unique challenge enthusiastically. Although Tiago was indefatigable his efforts during many weeks were unavailing.
”I am determined to accomplish this” he said in an email.
Eventually Tiago surrendered giving me the name of Mark Field an elected House of Commons member who Tiago thought might be able to help.
Ross Archer Field’s aide emailed ”The Big Ben tours office will not allow anyone who is not a UK resident to book a clock tower tour through the MP’s office. However you can occasionally book a tour you pay for through Ticketmaster.”
Alas Ticketmaster said absolutely not. Wrong.
Then I emailed foreign press associations suggested by American journo friends. Sorry no. Then the American Embassy press office. No response. Press office of House of Lords and House of Commons. No.
Let’s just show up for one of the Big Ben tour times and see if the guide might let us on I told my husband. Delayed watching hilarious Parlimentary debates we arrived just minutes after the Big Ben tour left for the climb.
The security guard handed me the phone to speak with the woman in charge of the Big Ben tours. I enunciated all prior entreaties.
”Well Madam” she said in elegant super-polite Brit tones ”why would you want to write about a tour on which no American could go? Your readers couldn’t go on the tour you plan to write about” she said triumphantly.
”Madam were that my subject matter criteria my column topics would be markedly circumscribed” I said in response. ”As with all travel writing because of ordinary human curiosity people particularly like to read about places they might never be able to go.”
My Jesuitical husband gave my repartee a smiling thumbs-up.
There was a protracted silence on the other end of the phone line.
”Madam you have a point” she said laughing at my temerity.
So we left Great Britain without climbing Big Ben. But three weeks ago in Washington D.C. I met a young British woman who is a travel writer and a UK resident.
”Email me when you will be next in London. I think I might be able to get you on that tour” she said confidently.
Janice Law is a columnist for The Daily News. Have a travel question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.