Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The iconic clock needs a rest — and a makeover.
After almost 150 years of ringing on the hour, the chimes of London’s Big Ben are due to swing to a halt. Starting in early 2017, bells in the U.K. Parliament’s famous clock tower will go un-tolled for several months, while the tower that houses them, whose clock first chimed in 1859, undergoes repairs and upgrades.
“Clock Takes a Rest” might not seem the most gripping of headlines, but it’s hard to underestimate the iconic significance of Big Ben in London and across the U.K. The tower’s chimes sound daily on the radio, often before news bulletins and in the run-up to important announcements. Many Londoners set their watches by it — I live almost a mile away and, in a rare moment of calm, I heard it chime 4 p.m. as I wrote the preceding sentence. Such is our regular exposure to them that the bells’ sonorous clang is easily recognizable to many Brits, reproduced on a thousand ringtones and doorbells. When a clock like this falls silent, it’s almost as if time itself is stopping.
But while Big Ben may be iconic, it’s also tired. Many of the 312 little pieces of pot opal glass that make up the intricate clock face need to be replaced. There are cracks in some of the neo-gothic tower’s elaborate masonry, and the iron roof is a little worn.
Even the frame from which Big Ben itself hangs needs a revamp (“Ben” is properly the name of the bell inside the tower, rather than the tower itself). That means the bell will have to be left un-swung for some time. Even when the frame is back in place, the bell may need to stay silent, so as not to destroy the hearing of restorers working around it. While work is underway, the clock will also have an elevator installed, which should make future work on the tower a little easier. Altogether it will require £29 million ($42 million) to get the tower back into good shape.
When it comes back into service, however, Big Ben will not just be sounder and cleaner, it will also be somewhat greener, with LED lights illuminating the clock face and belfry. The tower should also resemble its original condition more closely. In the early 1980s, the clock was given a slightly different appearance from its original one designed by Augustus Pugin.
No one seemed to mind or even notice these changes, because they came along with another, considerably more miraculous transformation — the removal of over a century’s worth of coal-smoke grime, revealing the warm, mellow, honey-colored stone beneath. Now, however, the 1980s innovations are being removed, and it will be interesting to see what, if anything is noticeable in the transformation. During its restoration, tourists will have to make do with a temporarily downgraded photo and video opportunity: shots of a scaffolding-covered clock whose bells never ring.