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Tourist Information, Sites and Landmarks (Q34-Q48)

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Q34. Why is Big Ben so called?

Although the name Big Ben is commonly used to refer to the famous clock at the top of St.Stephens Tower of the Houses of Parliament in London, the nickname is more correctly applied to the bell within the tower. It was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the Chief Commissioner of Works at the time.

The original bell, cast in 1856 and weighing some 15 tons, was being tested in Palace Yard when it developed serious cracks and had to be scrapped. The new bell, weighing a mere 13 tons, was installed in 1858. There are also four Quarter bells in the clock tower weighing between 4 tons and 1 ton.

Q35. What is the Giants Causeway?

The Giants Causeway lies on the north coast of Northern Ireland, near Portrush, County Antrim. It is an impressive formation of some 40,000 basalt columns (basalt is a type of hard, igneous rock) descending like a giant staircase into the sea. The columns are mainly hexagonal in shape, and were formed by lava flows pouring into the sea many millions of years ago.

According to legend the columns are the start of a causeway constructed by the terrible Irish Giant Finn MacCool, in an attempt to cross the sea to the Scottish coast!

Q36. How old is Stonehenge?

Stonehenge, the most famous prehistoric monument in Britain, is situated on Salisbury Plain in the county of Wiltshire. At various times regarded as a site built by the Druids, the Romans, the Danes and even the French, the first stage - a circular ditch and bank with an entrance flanked by a pair of small standing stones - is believed to have been built around 3,000 BC. The site was subsequently abandoned and rebuilt between 2100 BC and 1800 BC.

There are many mysteries surrounding this ancient site. Some of the stones used are thought to have come from the Preseli mountains in Pembrokeshire, Wales - yet exactly how they were transported to the site in such a primitive age is a puzzle. Experts believe they may have been transported for most of the way by water, before being dragged overland for the last stage of the journey.

It has been suggested that Stonehenge once operated as a massive astronomical clock, and there are even suggestions that it was a landing site for UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects)! A more likely explanation is that Stonehenge was an important centre of worship connected with the sun.

Q37. Is Hadrians Wall still standing?

Hadrians Wall is a Roman wall that runs for about 75 miles (120 kilometres) across northern England between Wallsend-on-Tyne in the East and Bowness in the Solway Firth in the West. Begun in 122 AD on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian, it was the northernmost frontier defence of Roman Britain. It was hoped that the wall would help to control the fearsome Scottish tribes, but it was attacked and overrun in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and abandoned in the 4th century.

Originally about 3m wide and 4.5m high, substantial sections of the wall were plundered for building materials over the centuries. However, the wall and remains of Roman forts along the way still stand today, with the finest surviving stretch being in the Northumberland National Park around the village of Gilsland. One of the best preserved Roman forts can be seen at Housesteads (Roman Vercovicium), six miles (9.7 kms) north east of Haltwhistle.

Q38. Why is the investiture of the Prince of Wales held at Caernarfon Castle?

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Caernarfon Castle is one of the finest castles in Britain. It was built between 1285 and 1322. Edward I of England ordered the castle to be built three years after the last independent Prince of Wales, Llywelyn, was killed and his principality occupied by the English. Entrance is through the Gate of the King, a great arch surmounted by a statue of Edward II, the first English Prince of Wales.

Although the castle is now only a shell, it is no less impressive for that. The Eagle Tower, over 40m high, can be reached by climbing 158 steps, passing by a small chamber known as the Queens Oratory, where Edward II, Prince of Wales, was said to have been born. Legend also tells us that the entrance to the castle on the east side, known as the Gate of Queen Eleanor, was where the infant Edward was presented to the people of Wales as their new Prince. Since those days the ceremony of the investiture of the Prince of Wales has always been held in Caernarfon Castle.

Q39. Why is the Tower of London so popular with tourists?

The Tower of London is one of the most popular and imposing of Londons historical sites. It comprises not one, but 20 towers, the oldest of which, the White Tower, dates back to the 11th century and the time of William the Conqueror. It is the Towers evil reputation as a prison that ensures it remains a much visited tourist spot today, together with the rich and varied history that surrounds it.

Many stories associated with British history come from the Tower. In 1483 King Edward IVs two sons were murdered in the so-called Bloody Tower, and over two centuries later the skeletons of two little boys were found buried beneath steps in the White Tower, assumed to be the bodies of the princes.

Traitors Gate, set in the southern wall of the Tower, has steps leading down to the River Thames. Countless prisoners, including the future Queen Elizabeth I of England, were brought to the Tower by barge, and ascended the steps before being imprisoned - for many it was their last moment of freedom before their death. Fortunately, Elizabeth was released from the Tower and became Queen.

Elizabeth Is father, Henry VIII, made the Tower the dread destination of his enemies. Sir Thomas More was beheaded there in 1535 and the Kings second wife, Anne Boleyn, was brought to trial there in 1536 and beheaded on Tower Green. Six years later her cousin, Catherine Howard, Henry VIIIs fifth wife, suffered the same fate.

The Tower is famous as home of the Crown Jewels. Today they can be viewed in their new jewel house from a moving pavement, designed to cope with the huge numbers of tourists. They include the Crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother which contains the celebrated Indian diamond, the Koh-i-noor (mountain of light), and St Edwards Crown which is used for the actual crowning of the Sovereign and weighs over two kilograms.

Everyone has heard of the Yeoman Warders of the Tower or "Beefeaters", whose striking Tudor uniform has changed little since 1485. The uniform consists of a knee-length scarlet tunic, scarlet knee-breeches and stockings, and a round brimmed hat called a Tudor bonnet. Their distinctive white neck ruff was introduced by Queen Elizabeth I.

No visit to the Tower would be complete without seeing the ravens; huge black birds who are an official part of the Tower community. Legend states that if the ravens were to leave the Tower the Crown will fall, and Britain with it. Under the special care of the Raven Master, the ravens are fed a daily diet of raw meat paid for out of a special fund set aside by Parliament. There is no danger of them flying away, as their wings are clipped!

Q40. How old is Londons tube?

fish and chips

The London Underground, or "tube" as it is often known, was the worlds first urban underground railway. It began operating in 1863, when the Metropolitan Railway opened a line between Paddington and Farringdon. Even in those days traffic jams caused by the congestion of horsedrawn vehicles generated complaints and letters to The Times, and as a result construction work began on the underground railway in 1860.

Although Londoners were originally sceptical about the project, calling it "the sewer railway", the service was an immediate success. Trains were steam operated, and travel must have been murky, sulphurous and extremely grimy compared with todays electrically operated trains.

Londons buses carry around four million passengers every day, and bus routes cover over 1,800 miles (nearly 2,900 kms) of the capitals roads. The familiar double-decker buses are one of the most distinctive sights in London, and no visit to London would be complete without a trip on one. The most famous design, with an open passenger platform at the rear of the bus, dates back to the 1950s, although now they are being replaced with more modern types with the entrance at the front.

Q41. What is Speakers Corner?

Speakers Corner in the north-east corner of Hyde Park in London is by tradition an area where public speeches can be made by anyone who has anything they want to say - no matter how eccentric or implausible. The area was set aside for such use in 1872, after Hyde Park itself became a popular centre for public speaking.

Speakers talk to the crowds from a soapbox - an improvised platform once made from wooden packing crates used for soap and other items. Individual speakers or representatives of various organisations or special causes deliver their speeches at weekends - to the amusement or bewilderment of passers by. Crowds often gather around a speaker, and generally feel free to make comments on the speech or simply to heckle the speaker if they dont agree with what is being said!

Speakers Corner is often taken as a symbol of free speech.

Q42. Where can I obtain tourist information about Britain?

tourist leaflets

Tourist information about Britain can be obtained from the British Tourist Authority website or at the following address.

British Tourist Authority
5915 Airport Rd Unit 120
Mississauga, ON L4V 1T1
Tel.: 1 905 405 1840
Or 1 888 847 4885
Fax: 1 905 405 1835

Q43. Can you drive through the Channel Tunnel?

Eurostar trains

No, you cannot drive through the Channel Tunnel. You can travel on the Eurostar train or Le Shuttle. Those wishing to take their car through the tunnel arrive at the terminal in Folkestone, England, or Calais in France and pay a toll before driving onto Le Shuttle - 800m long rail freight vehicles - the largest purpose designed rail wagons in the world.

There are three different types of shuttle: a doubledecker for carrying cars, motorbikes and bicycles; a single-deck shuttle for carrying coaches, cars with caravans and campers; and another singledeck shuttle for carrying fully loaded freight vehicles up to 44 tonnes in weight.

Tickets for Le Shuttle can be bought in advance, although it is not necessary to book services. Services through the tunnel work on a turn up and go basis so there is no fixed check-in time. Drivers of cars, coaches and heavy goods vehicles can all expect departures up to four times per hour. The journey time from platform to platform is 35 minutes, with 27 minutes in the tunnel.

Q44. Where can I find out about train services and times?

All mainline stations have information desks where you can enquire about train services and obtain train timetables. Alternatively, if you are in Britain you can call train information services on 03 458 4950.

Travel agents should also be able to give advice on train timetables, and most public libraries have copies of train timetables in the reference section.

Q45. Where can I find out about customs regulations?

For information about customs regulations and duty free allowances contact:

The Excise Advice Centre,
Dorset House, Stamford Street, London SE1 9NG
Tel.: +44 (0) 171 202 4227
Fax: +44 (0) 171 202 4131

Q46. What is the British weather like?

Despite its reputation for grey skies and rain, the climate in Britain is generally mild and temperate. The weather from day to day is mainly influenced by depressions moving eastwards across the Atlantic. Although the weather changes frequently, the temperature is subject to few extremes - it is rarely above 32°C or below -10°C.

Rain is fairly well distributed throughout the year, but, on average, March to June are the driest months and September to January the wettest. If you visit the mountainous areas of the west and north you can expect more rainfall than in central parts of Britain. During May, June and July - the months of longest daylight - the mean daily duration of sunshine varies from five hours in northern Scotland to eight hours in the Isle of Wight on the south coast. November, December and January have the least sunshine - only an hour a day in northern Scotland or two hours a day on the south coast of England.

Q47. When do shops have sales?

Sales poster

The biggest sales take place in January, when bargain-hungry shoppers have been known to queue all night outside Londons biggest department stores in the hope of snapping up drastically reduced goods. Wiser shoppers wait until the end of January, when there may be a smaller choice of bargains, but often the prices have been reduced even further for clearance.

Other sales take place at the end of spring and summer, when there are reduced prices on out of season goods, although it is always best to check with individual stores first.

Q48. Where can I buy tickets for sporting events and shows?

tickets

Contact the arena or theatre where the event is taking place for advice on ticket sales. Many venues list a ticket sales hotline in the telephone directory. By dialling this number you can order tickets and pay for them by credit card. Alternatively, major cities like London have numerous ticket agencies which sell tickets for all major events and shows, and also operate ticket sales hotlines - check the Central London telephone directory for details.

If you are in London you can buy cut-price tickets for the theatre on the day (subject to availability) at the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square.

... © Langust Agency 1999-,