The problem was how to get up there?
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.
That 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
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