It has been the proud boast of tourist guides to claim that every brick in the City of London encapsulates history. So too does the Big Ben, the monument of time that dates back to the Elizabethan era. “At the time of the chime, the time will be” has been the curtain-raiser to BBC news bulletins for as long as one can remember.
Exactly 160 years after it chimed for the first time on 11 July 1859, the “Elizabeth Tower” ~ the other name ~ will go beyond announcing the time of the day to become one more tourist attraction to dot the London landscape once its renovation is completed in 2021.
Indeed, there are plans to turn the tower to a full-fledged tourist attraction. It will be opened to visitors from around the world if Members of Parliament approve the plan. Hitherto, one could only marvel at Big Ben; the entry of tourists will lend a profound value to this historical relic of Tudor England. A new viewing platform and exhibition space are under construction, including an elevator to the top.
While the 13.7-tonne bell has remained in place, the clock was the most accurate in the world when installed in 1854. It has been removed and reconditioned cog by cog. The metal frames of the four faces have been blast-cleaned, painted blue in keeping with the original design, and rebuilt with 324 pieces of handmade opal-coloured glass from Germany.
By all accounts, the restoration has been an elaborate affair, marked by a minute attention to detail. The restoration began in 2017 and the original design, notably the east and north dials, remains intact. The stonework has been meticulously repaired using Cadeby stone from a quarry.
Gilding has been reapplied to the lettering around the dials and the cross and orb at the summit. The trickiest part of the operation has been the reconditioning and reinstallation of 3,433 pieces of cast iron that make up the roof of Big Ben, designed by Augustus Putin. The roof and southern clockface had been damaged by a bomb that hit the House of Commons in 1941 after renovation had begun.
Visitors to London may have heard a reassuring sound in recent weeks: Big Ben’s bongs are back. More than 15 months after Britain’s most beloved bell fell silent for a conservation project on the clock tower that houses it, engineers have been testing a small electric motor to ensure Big Ben plays its role at the Remembrance ceremonies.
It bears recall that the armistice that ended the First World War in 1918 was marked by 11 chimes. It was the first time that Big Ben had sounded the hour since midnight last New Year’s Eve, when it was briefly reattached to the elaborate clock mechanisms high up in the Elizabeth Tower. The tower is still shrouded in scaffolding, but will very soon be open to public viewing.