LONDON — With a dozen deep bongs, Britain’s Big Ben sounded the hour for the last time Monday before falling silent for repair work due to last almost four years.
The giant bell atop Parliament’s clock tower rang out at noon, as it has almost every hour since 1859, becoming an iconic sound of London. Hundreds of parliamentary staff, journalists and lawmakers gathered in a courtyard under the Victorian clock tower, while hundreds more tourists and passersby lined sidewalks and filled nearby Parliament Square.
The mood was light-hearted — it is, after all, just a bell — but total silence fell as the first bong sounded. The crowd burst into cheers and applause as the last faded away.
The break will allow workers to carry out much-needed maintenance to the clock and clock tower. But a handful of lawmakers have criticized the lengthy silence, calling Big Ben an important symbol of British democracy.
They want the time scale for repairs tightened, and House of Commons officials say they will take another look at the schedule once Parliament returns next month from its summer break.
Labour Party lawmaker Stephen Pound said the silencing of Big Ben was “a dispiriting moment.”
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” he said.
And Pound expressed skepticism that the repair work would be finished on schedule in 2021.
“Have you known any government project ever come in on time and on budget?” he said.
Big Ben has been silenced for repairs before, most recently in 2007, but this stretch is by far the longest. The bell is not due to resume regular timekeeping until sometime in 2021, though it will be heard on special occasions such as New Year’s Eve.
The sound of the 13.5 U.K. ton (15.1 U.S. ton, 13.7 metric ton) bell became associated with Britain around the globe through World War II radio news broadcasts. The clock tower — also commonly called Big Ben, but formally named the Elizabeth Tower — is one of London’s most-photographed buildings.
During the repair work, scaffolding will obscure parts of the tower, and the clock faces will be covered at times.
Adam Watrobski, principal architect at the Houses of Parliament, said authorities are well aware of how much interest the bell and the tower generate.
“But you know at the end of the day all buildings have to be serviced,” he said.
Watrobski added that once this round of work is finished, “the building will be sound and secure for the next 60 years or so.”
Story: Jill Lawless