LONDON – Since it first rang out in 1859, Big Ben has become one of London’s most iconic landmarks, faithfully marking every hour and quarter hour with resounding bongs and tinkling chimes. But a four-year conservation project will soon cause the historic clock tower to fall silent.
Big Ben – a name that technically refers to the bell inside the tower, but is often used to describe the entire structure – will sound for the last time at noon on August 21. It is scheduled to resume its signature peals in 2021.
The hiatus was prompted by upcoming renovations on Elizabeth Tower, which houses both Big Ben and the Great Clock that adorns the façade of the structure. According to a statement from the U.K. Parliament, Big Ben was paused to “ensure the safety of those working in the Tower.”
“As Keeper of the Great Clock I have the great honor of ensuring this beautiful piece of Victorian engineering is in top condition on a daily basis,” says Steve Jaggs, the Parliamentary clock keeper. “This essential program of works will safeguard the clock on a long term basis, as well as protecting and preserving its home – the Elizabeth Tower.”
The painstaking renovation work will involve dismantling and restoring each cog of the Great Clock, piece-by-piece. The clock will be covered while the process is ongoing, but one of its faces will remain visible to the public at all times. Adam Watrobski, principle architect of the project says that the renovation plan also includes improvements to Ayrton Light, which tops the tower and shines when parliament is sitting, along the installation of an elevator, kitchen and bathroom in Elizabeth Tower.
While four years marks the longest pause in Big Ben’s history, this is not the first time that the 13.7-metric ton bell has gone silent. Just two months after Big Ben first sounded in 1859, it was cracked by its heavy striker and taken out of commission for three years. Big Ben’s last major repairs took place between 1983 and 1985.
Intermissions aside, Big Ben emerged as a symbol of resilience – particularly after WWII. As Peter Macdonald writes in Big Ben: The Bell, the Clock, and the Tower, “Even during the Blitz, when the House of Commons was totally destroyed and the clock tower sustained superficial damage Big Ben kept going and sent out a daily message of hope and defiance around the world.”
For those not thrilled about Big Ben’s impending silence may find some comfort in the fact that the bell will periodically make its presence known over the next four years. According to the parliament’s statement, “specialist clock makers” are working to ensure that the bell sounds on important occasions, like Remembrance Sunday and New Year’s Eve.