Millions of visitors to London take their photo with Big Ben every year - at least they think they do. What many overlook is that Big Ben is not the clocktower attached to the Houses of Parliament, but in fact the bell within the tower that rings out every hour. And the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is the company which can lay claim to creating the 13-ton bell in 1858. It can also lay its name to one of the most famous and historic bells stateside too in the Liberty Bell located in Philadelphia.
If these credits weren't impressive enough, the Foundry also boasts a Guinness World Record entry as Britain's oldest surviving manufacturer. Indeed, Whitechapel Bell Foundry was making bells when Shakespeare's plays were being performed in The Globe for the first time, and when Francis Drake's Golden Hind was looting treasure and battling on the high seas back in 1570.
On this 90-minute tour, you'll find exactly how one goes about creating a bell from scratch - from the most dainty of hand bells to school bells to baby elephant-sized turret bells. Here they do it all and the skills of the 26-strong workforce range from welding, casting and carpentry to blacksmithing, tuning and installation in towers. You might come away with a ringing in your ears, but this fascinating insight into such a specialised production process is well worth it.
The Foundry has seen through eras of great upheaval in its lifetime from the Great Fire of London (where the premises had to be rebuilt from the ground up) to World War II when production of bells ceased and switched to aiding the war effort by making castings. And as time marches on, the techniques and technology behind bell-manufacturing at Whitechapel's are evolving too; nowadays the company is producing bells with not one, but 16 different peals! But this isn't to say the Foundry is turning its back on its history; far from it, it's about striking the perfect balance between the past and the future.
The fact that bells are still manufactured on these premises 4.5 centuries since the place was established is nothing short of incredible. However there is a downside in that tours of the Foundry are limited to fit around working hours so reservations (preferably a long time in advance) are a must. For those who are visiting on a whim, there are a few exhibits in the foyer and shop free to peruse Monday to Friday, but for those looking for the full ding-dong experience, you'll have to do as the scouts do and 'be prepared'. Tours are only on selected Saturdays (10am, 1.30pm and 4pm) and Wednesdays (5.30pm), so the safest bet is to get in touch with the Foundry to confirm tour dates/times at firstname.lastname@example.org.