Seattle Now & Then: Visiting Big Ben

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Built between 1843 and 1858, London’s landmark Great Clock, aka Big Ben, being dressed in 1955 for its restoration.
NOW: Jean Sherrard has taught writing and drama at Bellevue’s Hillside Student Community School for many years. Since 1998 he has also guided cadres of its older students on summer tours of London and Paris – in that order. Frances Alls, one of the ten students in this group, reflects, “It’s magical. You feel like you’re in a story.”

Through its thirty-seven years, this is surely the furthest from First and Yesler that our weekly feature, ordinarily about regional heritage, has ventured. Reaching 443-feet above the River Thames is the Elizabeth Tower.  On both our “now and then” occasions this neo-Gothic landmark has been exceptionally dressed for make-overs.  Two of the four faces for its tenants, the Great Clock and Big Ben, perhaps the world’s most famous chiming and yet cracked bell, can be seen through the restoration scaffolding of 1955. That was one year before the creation of London’s Clean Air Act.

I remember well pointing my borrowed Leica to record this London landmark sixty-three years ago.  I was touring Europe with sixteen rolls of Kodachrome slide film, donated by a Spokane drugstore merchant, and about thirty-five other Northwest teens, “donated” by their parents.  We were all delegates headed for a ten-day YMCA-YWCA conference in Paris.  We were selected by discerning adults who were especially encouraged by other adults: those who could afford to send us, our parents.  The conference responsibilities were preluded by a five-week tour of Europe that began here in London.

For our London visit in 1955 we lodged at the Croydon YMCA. The windows are open for the heat I remember and yet we for the most part are wearing our light cotton jackets as testimony to our entourage. The walking group  on the sidewalk represents about half of our excited force.

Jean Sherrard sent me his Westminster/London repeat a mere two days after he served for family and friends one or two of his exceptionally tender rotisserie chickens at teh Sherrard family home near the north shore of Green Lake.  Dodging some overhanging foliage Jean recorded his splendid portrait of Great Britain’s Big Ben from nearly the same spot where I also photographed that chiming clock sixty-three years earlier.

A century ago a popular guide to London.    I started collecting books on London about 30 years ago. Do you have any?  She we trade?

If memory serves, in 1955 it took us twenty-one days aboard the Orsova, flagship for the Orient Lines, to reach London from Vancouver B.C. via the Panama Canal.  I remember well the two on-deck swimming pools. Also, any passenger could enjoy both teatime tables slathered with pastries and the sometimes splashing tables of the captain’s cocktail hours.  The freedom and frivolity of this drinking was entirely new to us Northwest innocents, who were more likely to find our guarding chaperones in attendance than the Orsova’s smiling Captain.

Here far left  on the distant Horizon photographed from St. Paul’s Cathedral are Westminster Cathedral with its twin towers, the Parliament Building, farthest to the left, and the restoration-construction-clad Big Ben.

The Paris Conference itself was often neglected by an inexpensive attraction: walking the streets of Paris.  Jean will be carrying with him one or more of my Paris pictures from 1955 for possible repetition.  (Assuredly these other “thens” will not be of conference subjects.) However, Jean’s Paris “now” will, no doubt, include the same entourage of the Hillside Students he has posed in this London “now.”

BELOW: A Few of the Stock LONDON subjects I took in 1955.


I am thinking of their luggage. I remember what a limited wardrobe we carried with and on us in 1955. By the time we reached Paris, many of us were committed to the Lederhosen, or leather shorts we had purchased in Germany. In Paris Jean’s Hillside students may use a Parisian runway for a showing of their Northwest wardrobe.


A few things to add, I’m thinking. Some more shots from Paul’s 1955 trip (above), and I’ll include a few photos taken on our school trip.

We discovered upon our arrival in London that Rodin’s magnificent ‘Burghers of Calais’ sculpture, usually in Victoria Tower Park next to Westminster, had been temporarily moved for a special Rodin exhibition. Hillside students attempted a repeat on the empty plinth:

The original Rodin sculpture in situ…
Our student repeat…
‘Burghers’ detail

And now a selection from the rest of our trip…

Ice cream along the Serpentine with Christo
Another view of the Big Ben repair job, just before visiting parliament
A look at Big Ben from the London Eye
The view from atop St. Paul’s Cathedral, looking south. The reconstruction of the Globe Theatre can be found just to the left of the Millennium Bridge
Looking west from the top of St. Paul’s
Trafalgar Square this July
St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a shrine to great music
Posing before, adjacent and upon a Trafalgar Square lion



I found this in my computer, but I’m sure that I did not record it. I suspect that Genevieve McCoy did. She visited London in 2007, and as a sometimes helpful friend and student-collector of London subjects I surely wanted to preserve it for occasions or opportunities like this.  Now I wonder is the man in the lower-right corner singing a hymn or leading a tour.   Perhaps he is yawning or sees the mouse.  I’ll have to ask.  . 

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