Democracy Dies in Darkness

Europe

Just a few more bongs for Big Ben before London bell is silenced for four years

By William Booth, Karla Adam

August 14, 2017 at 12:36 PM

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Video from 2015 offers a look inside London's iconic clock, which will be silenced for four years while the 158-year-old timepiece undergoes repairs. The last gongs are expected to sound at noon on Aug. 21. (U.K. Parliament)

LONDON — So it has come to pass that the Keeper of the Great Clock announced Monday that London's Big Ben hour bell will be silenced for four long years as desperately needed repairs are carried out on the 158-year-old timepiece, a masterwork of Victorian ingenuity and an enduring British icon.

Londoners were not happy to hear the news, and there was lament on Twitter, with many recalling how the hourly bongs of Big Ben serve as a kind of base note for their lives.

"A silent Big Ben will be super eerie," tweeted Rob, a history student at King's College. "I could hear the chimes from my room in Euston, they're the sound of London!"

"It will be very sad, but it needs to be done," said Kirsten Hurrell, 71, a news agent who runs a busy stall that faces the clock tower.

Hurrell said the gong of Big Ben might be one of those things in life you don't miss until it is gone. "Quite honestly, we live with it and half the time we don't hear it," she said. "But we will miss it when we will suddenly find it's not there any more."

Scaffolding covers Elizabeth Tower, which houses Big Ben, in London as part of a four-year restoration project. (Will Oliver/EPA)

Tourism officials were glum but hoping for the best.

A selfie with the Great Clock atop Elizabeth Tower along the Thames River is almost mandatory. The Palace of Westminster, home to the houses of Parliament, is one of the top five visited sites in London, and Big Ben is the star of the show. 

The tower will soon be fully swaddled in metal scaffolding and three of the four clock dials covered. The last gongs of Big Ben, before its long rest, will ring out at noon Monday, Aug. 21. Large crowds are expected to witness the event. The repairs should be complete sometime in 2021, authorities promised.

"Big Ben has marked the hour with almost unbroken service for the past 157 years," said Keeper of the Great Clock Steve Jaggs, noting that the complex renovation — budgeted at about $40 million — is designed to safeguard clock and tower for future generations.

"Big Ben falling silent is a significant milestone in this crucial conservation project," the clock keeper said.

The actual bell is not the problem. It is the clock that rings the bell that needs repairs.

Cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the 13-ton hour bell was the largest of its day, its first performance celebrated by parliament in 1859.

In all these years, Big Ben bonged through good times and bad, including the Blitz, Germany's eight-month aerial bombardment of London during World War II.

The hour bell has been silenced for long periods a few times before. Just weeks into its service, Big Ben cracked. Apparently the striking hammer was too heavy. A lighter hammer was installed, the bell was turned, and Big Ben was back in service after three years. The experts say the crack gives the bell its unique but imperfect tone.

In more recent times, Big Ben stopped pealing for six weeks in 2007 and for repairs in 1983 and 1976. The bell was silent during the funerals of prime ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.

The Keeper of the Great Clock explained that Big Ben must be silenced as the clock itself must be "dismantled piece by piece with each cog examined and restored." 

The four opal glass faces of the dials will also be cleaned and repaired, the rusting cast iron framework renewed, and the hour and minute hands refurbished. In addition, some modern conveniences — such as an elevator and washroom — will be built for the timekeepers.

Not only will Big Ben be quiet, but four quarter bells, which chime every 15 minutes, also will go silent.

While the refurbishment is ongoing, conservationists will allow one dial of the clock's four faces to be visible, so Londoners can still set their watches. A modern electric motor will turn the clock hands until "the prince of timekeepers" is repaired.

Some folks wonder why the bells can't keep ringing during the repairs. Or why an ersatz recording couldn't bang on. The answer is that a recording would be a feeble thing. More to the point, the clock tower will be crawling with artisans repairing a national treasure. They can't go holding their hands to their ears every 15 minutes.

The clock keeper announced that Big Ben would not be completely silenced during the repairs and would strike the hour for "important national events," such as New Year's Eve and Remembrance Sunday, Britain's version of Veterans Day.

"Yay!" Ty Lopez said as Big Ben let out a bong Monday at precisely 1:15 p.m. 

Lopez, a 36-year-old flight attendant from New York, and her friends were in London only for two days, but they made sure to take in the sights — and sounds — of Big Ben.

She reckoned that four years would pass by quickly.

Oliver Harris, 36, a flight attendant traveling with Lopez, said the silence could take some adjustment. 

"It's going to be different. You're going to have to rely on looking at your watch, looking at your phone, instead of listening to the bongs." He said it would be akin to living next to a subway station that suddenly closed for renovations. "It would be weird at first not to hear it going by your room."

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William Booth is The Post’s London bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Jerusalem, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Miami.

Karla Adam is a London correspondent for the Washington Post

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