Why is the UK restoring the Big Ben, and what new features will it get?

By: |
September 08, 2021 5:19 PM

The UK government announced in 2017 that the tower would undergo a restoration process over four years, said to be the largest and most complex in its history.

big ben restorationStanding at 96 m, the tower houses the great bell and the striking clock, said to be the world’s most accurate. (Reuters)

The Big Ben in central London is an engineering marvel, one that has stood the test of time, and is one of the city’s major tourist hotspots. Completed in 1859, the structure was originally called the Clock Tower before being renamed to St Stephen’s Tower. In 2019, it was rechristened after Queen Elizabeth II. Standing at 96 m, the tower houses the great bell and the striking clock, said to be the world’s most accurate. The bell — Big Ben — was the UK’s largest for 23 years.

Big Ben history
A clock tower has stood at the Big Ben site — an extension of the Palace of Westminster, the UK Parliament complex — since the 1290s.

The Palace was destroyed in a fire in 1834. Architect Charles Barry then reconstructed the complex in the 1840s, with Augustus Welby Pugin executing his Big Ben design.

Construction began in 1845 at the Palace’s north end. Pugin’s neo-Gothic method meant construction was carried out from the inside. As a result, Londoners seldom witnessed the materials or the workers during construction.

The tower was built with bricks, covered with Anston stone, while a two-tier iron spire topped the building. A winding staircase is located inside, an air shaft brings fresh air, and a weight shaft to support the clock. The tower base houses a prison meant for unruly MPs.

The clock’s design was the biggest challenge. At that juncture, time was measured by the sun and it was never accurate. According to UK government documentation, the Astronomer Royal wanted the tower to house the world’s most accurate turret clock. He ordered that the clock should be accurate to within a second of the hour.

To carry out the Astronomer Royal’s wishes, four small quarter bells were built with the great bell. A quarter bell chimes every 15 minutes, while the great bell strikes at the hour.

The Ayrton Light, installed at the top of the tower, in 1892 signals when Parliament is in session after sunset and can be seen across London. It has been said that, originally, the light shone towards Buckingham Palace so Queen Victoria could see if her MPs were working.

The Big Ben has on several occasions gone silent, mostly for repair work, but also during the Second World War when its chime had become a liability.

Big Ben restoration and new features
The UK government announced in 2017 that the tower would undergo a restoration process over four years, said to be the largest and most complex in its history.

The government had said that Parliament was restoring the tower to its former glory. Additionally, its facilities would be modernised and upgraded to fit into the 21st century. The government added that the project was vital to ensure the UNESCO World Heritage site was safeguarded for future generations.

The tower’s stones had been crumbling, its ironwork rusting, roofs leaking, and the clock aging. The £80 million project will see the tower undergoing repair and redecoration and improvements in health and safety systems. The tower will also become energy efficient. The restoration project also envisages installation of a lift to improve access for emergency services and maintenance, and building a kitchen and toilet.

The next Big Ben chime
The conversation project is likely to be finished by 2021. The clock’s hands were restored to their original colour of Prussian blue on September 6. Workers discovered only during the restoration that the clock’s hands were blue, not black.

This Big Ben, which chimed for the last time on August 21, 2017, will next be sounded following its 2022 unveiling. The chiming of the bell was stopped to ensure the workers’ safety. A temporary striking mechanism has been used to chime the bell on New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday since 2017.

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