Bell tolls for Big Ben as four-year silence begins

London landmark Big Ben fell silent for four years in front of a reverential crowd on Monday amid an outcry over the temporary loss of a cherished symbol of stability at a time of national uncertainty.

At midday, 12 bongs from the famous bell rang out in front of around 1 000 local residents, tourists and MPs who came out to mark Big Ben’s longest silence in its 157-year history for extensive repair work.

The atmosphere was sombre as the hour chimes heralded the final bongs.

The 12th and final bong was followed by sustained applause and cheering.

“I can see it from where I live. I do live my life by it,” said Denise Wiand, one of the spectators, who lives across the River Thames.

“I’m 72 and I’m worried it might be the last time I actually hear them!” she said.

Thomas Moser, a 54-year-old German tourist, said: “The crowd were really listening. We are here, we want to hear every single sound.”

The bongs are a venerated marker of British life, used at the start of radio and television newscasts, and a focus for national occasions and the midnight countdown to New Year’s Day.

The sound is also familiar beyond Britain, as it is broadcast on the BBC World Service.

The bell is housed in the Elizabeth Tower, which looms over the Houses of Parliament and is one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions.

The bells are being stopped due to fears that prolonged exposure to the 118-decibel bongs from the 13.7-tonne Big Ben could damage the hearing of renovation workers.

Melancholy in the key of E

But the decision has silenced an emblem of continuity as Britain grapples with Brexit negotiations.

Politicians have claimed that when they agreed to the work, they did not know the chimes would be silenced for four years.

Prime Minister Theresa May is among those unhappy at the shutdown and the House of Commons has now said it will reconsider how long the bells will stay silent.

MP Stephen Pound led some 300 people who came out of parliament to mourn the midday chimes.

“It was like it was saying goodbye to us,” he said.

“It was melancholy in the key of E” — the note which Big Ben makes.

“The world is a dreadful dangerous, worrying, scary place at the moment. The sound of this bell represents stability, solidity and continuity.

“These are the chimes of freedom and they’ve got to be respected. We’ve got to keep them bonging.”

Under current plans, the bell would still ring on Remembrance Sunday in November, which commemorates Britain’s war dead, and New Year’s Eve.

“It was rather like a minute’s silence,” Peter Bone MP said after Monday’s farewell.

He is among the MPs demanding that the clock swings back in action on the eve of March 29, 2019, when Britain is due to leave the European Union.

“It’s absolutely essential that the bell rings to celebrate the return of power to Westminster,” he added.

‘Taking our history away’

The 96-metre (315-foot) tower is the most photographed building in Britain. The renovation is estimated to cost £29-million ($37-million, €32-million).

Steve Jaggs, the Keeper of the Great Clock at parliament, said the conservation work was essential.

“We are talking about an international symbol of democracy,” he said.

“We have to preserve this for future generations to enjoy.”

Tom Brake MP, spokesman for the Commons commission responsible for maintaining the Houses of Parliament, said the works were probably the most substantial ever carried out on the tower.

“This is a world heritage building that has to be maintained to certain standards,” he said.

A YouGov poll published Saturday found that 41% of Britons believe Big Ben should continue operating as normal, while 44% agreed that it should be silenced during the renovations.

Some tourists sat on picnic blankets to witness the final bongs, while others filmed them on their phones or stood in silence by the statue of World War II prime minister Winston Churchill.

The bells of Westminster Abbey pealed afterwards to say farewell to their neighbour.

“It’s sad to us because that is our history. That belongs to this great city,” said George Major, 80, the Pearly King of Peckham in south London.

Icons of traditional working class London, pearly kings wear suits covered in pearl buttons and represent their area of the capital.

“Why do they keep knocking London and taking our history away? It’s not right.”

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