LONDON — An essential part of the London landscape is about to disappear for up to four years. Not a sight, but a sound: the hourly bong-bong-bong-bong of Big Ben.
The distinctive and reassuring chimes, which have marked the passage of time since the Victorian era, will fall silent after ringing out at noon on Monday for the final time before a $37 million restoration project at the tower in which the bell is housed.
The bongs have been an almost constant presence, heard not just in London but around the world: Two BBC News bulletins each day, at 6 p.m. and midnight, begin with the famous sound, which the broadcaster first used in 1924. The building, in millions of replicas, and the chimes, played by clocks around the world, are among the most recognizable symbols of modern Britain and have become a tourist attraction in their own right.
Now the scaffolding that has been climbing up the tower as part of an ambitious renovation project will cover all but one of its clock faces.
The idea that one of Britain’s national symbols would be draped in white and muted while the country negotiated its divorce from the European Union was almost too much to bear for some of the senior politicians driving what is commonly known as “Brexit,” and for several of the country’s popular tabloids, which are rarely afraid to wave the flag.
Prime Minister Theresa May asked for a review of the plans and David Davis, Britain’s lead negotiator in the withdrawal talks, said that the interruption was “mad” and those responsible should “just get on with it,” echoing the prime minister’s first major speech on “Brexit.”
For all of the hand-wringing, this is not the first time Big Ben has been silenced, which perhaps explained the less sentimental approach taken by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party. “It’s not a national disaster or catastrophe,” he said.
In fact, there is nothing wrong with the main bell. (It has several cracks, but those are what give it its distinctive sound, and officials have issued assurances that they will be left alone.)
It’s the tower, officially known as the Elizabeth Tower and commonly referred to as Big Ben, the clock mechanism and faces that are showing signs of aging, like the rest of the crumbling Palace of Westminster.
Paint is flaking, there are cracks in the masonry, the roof is leaking and the metalwork is rusting. All need to be addressed to keep the clock from falling.
But at 118 decibels, Big Ben’s bongs are so loud (over the human pain threshold and louder than a jet taking off) that they might startle people working at heights or damage their hearing permanently.
Parliamentary officials said that they would reconsider the duration of the silence when they return from summer recess, but that the safety of workers would be protected. Big Ben would still chime each November, they said, to remember those who served in World War I, and would also continue to ring in the new year.
During World War II, when the bells carried on tolling after a brief interlude, the sound of Big Ben gave troops a boost in morale, and provided hope to those in occupied countries like France. “It was our lifeblood, and it was our comfort, and it kept us sane,” Ginette Spanier, a former director of the Paris fashion house Pierre Balmain, once told the BBC.