Pamela Rodger climbs Big Ben at 87

Pamela Rodger

Pamela Rodger wanted to see the
mech­an­ism of London’s most fam­ous
clock in action, strik­ing mid­day.
The prob­lem was how to get up there?

Big Ben at sunset, by Stefano Guidici at

I’m 87, my hus­band Alan is 83. I’m retired and I enjoy myself. We live with my daugh­ter, son-​in-​law and three grand-​daughters in one house divided into flats. We walk the dog about two miles every day. Exercise plays a very strong part for me. On Mondays I go to the gym, Tuesdays pil­ates, Wednesdays tai chi and Thursdays exer­cise class. Friday to Sunday I have off. Alan mainly gar­dens.

We belong to the Hampstead Scientific Society. In February (2011), they asked if any­one would like to join a group to see Big Ben, the mech­an­ism, and the bell. To get up there you have to walk up 334 steps. There’s no lift. And no loo. I imme­di­ately thought “no”. Alan went and put both our names down. I said I won’t be able to do it, and he said, yes you can.

About two months ahead of the visit, we got sent this health and safety note from the Tour Guide to the Clock Tower. The advice said: “Owing to the nature of the tour, it is not suit­able for all vis­it­ors. It requires a cer­tain degree of good health and fit­ness… it is reas­on­ably strenu­ous and there is no lift…” And so on.

It soun­ded ter­ri­fy­ing! After that, I thought I needed to take it ser­i­ously. We knew about the Hampstead tube sta­tion emer­gency steps, and we went to invest­ig­ate. To our delight there were 320 steps. We decided to use them to train.

The first time we went up, I used my pil­ates breath­ing, I took three deep breaths before we star­ted, then one huge breath every time we did a step. I got up about 30 steps and my legs hurt. I paused for a few breaths, then went on up. Half way, at 150, we stopped for about five minutes, because they said you get a short break half way. We man­aged to get up in 10 minutes.

Hampstead underground sign from WiwkipediaThat was a try-​out. After that, we did start train­ing. But about seven weeks before the visit we both got chest infec­tions. Alan was really quite bad, had to be taken to hos­pital. When he recovered he didn’t want to do it any more, but I said let’s try again.

We did the Hampstead steps 16 times alto­gether, every day at one point. By the last time, we got it down to 7½ minutes with a shorter stop and I could walk up 60 steps before my legs ached. I did get out of breath but it was man­age­able.

On the big day I was think­ing: where’s the loo? There were eight of us in the end in our party. The tour guide said we’d stop twice, a third of the way up and again two-​thirds of the way. Far from being a short break, he stopped for 10 minutes and gave us an inter­est­ing talk each time: there are little rooms off the steps which you can go in and sit down.

I was rather puffed after the first lot of steps, legs not too bad. It seemed like no dis­tance to the two-​thirds. Then we went up to the bells. We stayed until 12; the guide gave us ear plugs and we watched Big Ben chim­ing mid­day.

The clock tower steps were nar­rower than Hampstead, half as wide. But there was a hand rail. That was another thing that had wor­ried me so I was doing the Hampstead tube steps without hold­ing on, push­ing on my legs to make them work.

With the extra train­ing, I did notice that every­day tasks were easier at home: I was walk­ing upstairs without hold­ing on. And it was easier to do garden­ing. My legs were def­in­itely stronger. That was a good thing — life’s easier if you’re stronger. My appet­ite improved and I lost weight. I am eat­ing more and very health­ily. Alan also feels the extra strength in his legs, says it makes the garden­ing easier. And the added fit­ness does make you sleep bet­ter, more deeply.

This edited inter­view is from May 2011

Want to get star­ted with some exer­cise? The Body Maintenance Manual will guide you.

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One Response to Pamela Rodger climbs Big Ben at 87

  1. I loved read­ing this and remem­ber Pamela from the very first exer­cise class I joined with Jane as our trainer. What determ­in­a­tion!