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It’s quarter to seven in the morning on a Saturday and the fire alarm is going off in the Top Floor Flat. While normally this might be cause for alarm and a rude wakeup, today it’s just our temperamental toaster starting the day. Ann and I groggily wander around the flat, checking we have passports, collecting multiple forms of identification and forgetting the toast before making our way (quietly past our probably furious and equally groggy neighbours) to the London Houses of Parliament for the Big Ben Enthusiasts tour.

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the clock, clock tower and bell and Ann has secured a pair of tickets allowing us to take a tour up the tower to view the internal workings of the clock and the great bell itself in action as it tolls the (early) hour. Ourselves and 18 other enthusiasts are the very first group to celebrate Big Ben’s Birthday and as we stand under the famous buildings of Westminster alongside the Thames, I wonder how many Americans get to experience this bit of British history.

There’s a great deal of waffling, it seems, as to what each part of the famous structure actually named. The official word from our tour guides is that the tower is called the Clock Tower (not, as some people believe, St. Stephen’s Tower – there is no such tower on the premises), the clock is called the clock and the bell is called Big Ben. Our tour begins with a quick jaunt up the lower half of the 334-step tower before taking a breather in one of the many rooms that populate the 96m Clock Tower. Here we get a proper introduction to our tour guides, Ian and Paul, the official Palace of Westminster clockmakers who are responsible for not only the Great Clock in the tower but also the other 2000-odd clocks throughout the Houses of Parliament. These guys are seriously passionate about clocks, describing the intricacies of weighing the pendulum with copper pennies, difficulties of rewinding the clock three days each week and the cleaning and lighting of the clock faces.

The bell has had a rocky history. Although we’re celebrating its 150th birthday, it’s origins are from slightly earlier and in fact today’s bell is actually the second version after the first one was broken during test tolls and had to be remelted and cast. Then, shortly after moving into its tower home, misuse of the bell led to a crack in the side that has remained ever since. It’s slightly noteworthy that the company that built Big Ben also made the Liberty Bell so cracks seem to be a trend.

As we ascend the tower, we pass through increasingly exciting bits of the historic monument. From just behind the clock face, roman numerals longer than my arm appear backwards against translucent sheets of glass while above us the clock mechanism is keeping perfect time as dozens of gears wind slowly around. On the half and quarter hours the small quarter bells chime somewhere in the unexplored part of the tower, a hint of what’s to come. Finally, we climb into the cloudy sunlight and the belfry where nothing but a few planks of wood and wire netting separate us from a three-hundred foot tumble. There, in all its glory, is Big Ben itself.

With earplugs in and breath held, Paul and Ian count down the seconds to 10am and the quarter bells start to chime. Sixteen counts later, the hammer lifts against Big Ben and falls to strike the first toll of the ten o’clock hour. Half a minute after the final chime stops, the belfry is still vibrating around us as the resonance fades away.

After the main attraction, we head back down to the Westminster Palace halls but not before we’re presented with commemorative pins to mark the anniversary of Big Ben, a unique piece of memorabilia that only those who toured the tower can claim. As Ann and I leave the Houses of Parliament in search of brunch (the morning’s burnt toast seeming very far away indeed) we give a parting glance to Big Ben which will host another 500 visitors before the weekend is out. I’m happy to be the first to say it, Happy Birthday Ben, thanks for being such an iconic part of London skyline and history.

If you’d like to learn more about the Big Ben 150th anniversary celebrations or find out about public tours up the Clock Tower, visit http://www.bigben.parliament.uk/.

Independence Day in London has traditionally (well, the one previous time I’ve celebrated it here) been a strange combination of British and American elements coming together to create a unique multi-national celebration unlike anything I’ve ever known. Last year, I visited the British Museum for a tour of their British artist’s exhibition, to look at their stunning collection of British artifacts and to take part in their American independence day celebration which was marked with, of all things, Krispy Kreme donuts, quilt-making and American football demonstrations. To cap it off, I was spending the day with my British flatmate and a friend from high school in California.

This year seemed as if it would be a bit of a wash in the American department as I had already spent the day watching Wimbledon while eating strawberries. In an effort to regain some sense of the homeland I dressed myself up in red, white and blue, made southern-style chili and thought superior and revolutionary thoughts at all the British people I passed.

The evening of the fourth, however, another American friend here in London encouraged me to join the multi-national group that was celebrating our independence not too far from where I live. Without needing much more encouragement, I made my way to a New York style pizza joint decorated with red, white and blue balloons to spend the evening with my American friend, a El Salvadorian who had spend over a decade in the States, his Irish wife and our British friend. It’s unlikely there was a more mixed group anywhere celebrating independence day but of course, that’s what America is all about.

Happy 4th of July!

On 1 July, the product launch day for my friends over at Sonnet Models, the team had a small unofficial launch party (a little celebration to preempt a bigger upcoming launch party) and I got invited along. The location was set for the banks of the Thames a ways outside London in a town called Henley-on-Thames, famously home of the Henley Regatta – one of the top three UK sporting events along with Wimbledon and the Royal Ascot horse race. To my great excitement, the evening’s launch party would coincide with the regatta itself so five o’clock saw me beating a hasty retreat from the Spoonfed offices, racing across town to change into my British summer best, and hopping a train from Paddington Station towards the previously unvisited town of Henley-on-Thames.

The evening hit an unfortunate bump early off as signal failures locally had delayed every train leaving the station. After an hour sitting on the unmoving train I had been worried I’d miss, I began to wonder if the 75 minute ride would be worth it. The train finally began moving but my misgivings increased when, at the junction where I needed to change trains, I saw hordes of well-dressed revelers leaving the regatta which had ended some hours before.

Given that my only other option was to turn around and find someone to shout at in the train station I had just left, I carried on towards Henley where I finally discovered the adorable little river-side town and the Sonnet Model’s celebratory group who welcomed me with a much needed glass of Pimms. The weather in Henley was stunning and we spent the evening wandering the banks of the river, indulging in ice creams and Pimms and taking in the post-regatta calm that was probably much preferable to the chaos of the day’s main event.

While I only had a few hours outside of London in Henley, the mini break reminded me how much I enjoy getting out of the city, especially with a friendly, fun and social group of people. While of course I’m looking forward to the Sonnet Models’ official launch party, I’m not sure much could be the great weather and relaxed evening on the banks of the Thames in Henley.

View from the Top

It has been an exceptionally busy week, so busy in fact that I had to regretfully skip a night of free drinks, networking and the lovely people of the London tech scene yesterday to attempt to squeeze in a few extra hours of sleep. Tonight I’m off to Taste of London in Regents Park – an opportunity to sample foods from some of London’s top restaurants – and tomorrow it’s a fancy dress club night with a whole lotta blues, jazz and sultry sound called Voodoo Hoodoo.

In the meantime, I took an (abysmally poor quality because I moved too fast) video from the building where MoMo London was hosted – we were 10 stories above ground, directly overlooking the Tate Modern (the giant brick chimney attached to the large blocky building). Behind the Tate you can just make out St. Paul’s dome, the river and the financial district. If the view doesn’t make you ill, I hope this gives a bit of a taste of the view of London from above.

VIP access. It’s a bit like going to Hawaii. It would be wonderful to go but you can have perfectly nice vacations in other ways. So unless someone offers you an all-expenses paid trip to the island state, completely with food, drinks, a beautiful hotel room and, say, first class airfare, that’s not something you’d shell out for on your own. Same goes for VIP access, especially at some of the clubs around London. £1250 for your birthday in the VIP room (includes drinks and canapes)? I’d say that’s a bit steep. An extensive membership application and fee before you can are even allowed to pay the £25 entry to the club? Something I can probably live without.

But like that all expenses-paid trip to Hawaii, every so often there comes an opportunity to take advantage of the VIP service and last Friday evening I had the chance to begin my birthday weekend in high style with a summer BBQ and VIP club night at the Kensington Roof Gardens in west London.

Located on over an acre of rooftop, the Kensington Roof Gardens were imagined not as a view of London, but an escape from the city. As such, high, ivy-covered walls enclose the space which, when the noise of the traffic seven stories below is quiet, I can easily imagine situated behind a villa in Spain. Live flamingos wander through the still ponds, lush greenery surrounds the paths and tables and the decadent club just inside offers a reprieve from the London elements should it get a little too cold or rainy. I tried not to act too impressed during the grand tour.

Kensington Roof Gardens, London

Kensington Roof Gardens, London

The club has just finished a refurbishment of their outdoor gardens and Friday evening’s event was meant as a showcase for the upgrade. While the gardens were certainly idyllic, our group’s focus was quickly overtaken by the summer BBQ, a surf and turf set of samplings ranging from steaks and giant prawns to lamb and chicken skewers. Our host for the evening described the corporate events the club can host and I can clearly see it would be the ideal celebratory company event – there was something for everyone.

There was dessert, and some overly-liberal refillings of my wine glass by our attentive waiters, and then we headed into our VIP section of the club where a DJ was already spinning tracks for the crowded dance floor. After basking in the undeserved glory of being ‘VIP’ for the night for a bit longer, it was time to go – it had been a wonderful night and a fantastic beginning to my birthday weekend.

Kensington Roof Gardens Club

Kensington Roof Gardens Club

So all in all, I still don’t think I could bring myself to have a £1250 VIP birthday party, but after having a taste of what VIP means at the Kensington Roof Gardens, I can see why it’s such a coveted title and can certainly see treating myself to a night out. After all, it’s high time I was recognised as a ‘very important person’ ;-).

Get more info about the Kensington Roof Gardens on their website or their blog.