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London's Big Ben bell falls silent for four years

The Big Ben bell's final bong has rung out from the UK parliament's clock tower. The cherished symbol will be silent for most of the next four years while the tower is renovated, to the ire of some lawmakers.

A crowd of more than a thousand people gathered at midday Monday (1100 UTC) to ensure Big Ben went out with a bong on Monday. Though the mood was light-hearted, the crowd became silent as the first of the 12 bongs sounded and applause broke out after the last.

The hammer that has struck the massive bell every hour for most of the past 157 years will take a break until 2021.

Workmen clean the clockface of the tower which houses Big Ben in this archive picture from 2007. (picture-alliance/dpa/L. Whyld)

The repair works are set to take four years

The tower's bells will be locked and disconnected from the clock while the structure undergoes extensive renovations.

"This essential program of works will safeguard the clock on a long-term basis, as well as protecting and preserving its home, the Elizabeth Tower," said Steve Jaggs, whose official title is "Keeper of the Great Clock."

A group of British MPs was among those due to have gathered outside Parliament for Big Ben's last chimes before the repair work. Labour MP Stephen Pound said that around 20 "traditionalists" would stand before the tower "with heads bowed but with hope in our hearts." This, however, elicited an amused reaction from a less "traditional" colleague of Pound's, Labour's Jess Phillips. 

Big Ben, which chimes at 118 decibels, is being silenced to protect the hearing of repair workers. Its bongs will still sound for important events such as New Year's Eve celebrations.

But the shutdown, coinciding with Britain's impending departure from the European Union, leaves the country without one of its most renowned symbols during a time of national uncertainty.

Listen to audio 04:45

Inside Europe: Can the Brits survive without Big Ben?

That's sparked a political debate, with Prime Minister Teresa May among those to chime in.

"Of course we want to ensure people's safety at work, but it can't be right for Big Ben to be silent for the next four years," she told reporters earlier this month. 

A House of Commons commission has said it would consider the length of time the bells will fall silent, taking efficiency as well as health and safety into account. The Commons said starting and stopping the bells took about half a day, so it would not be practical to do it often. Some pro-Brexit MPs from May's Conservative Party have called for the bell to be back in action on March 29, 2019, when Brexit takes effect.

London landmark

The Palace of Westminster on the bank of the River Thames, home to Parliament, is a world heritage site and major tourist attraction.

Michael Dobbs, member of the House of Lords and author of the political thriller "House of Cards,"  told DW's Inside Europe that Big Ben was an enduring symbol of Britain.

"It's a great source of comfort there, a sense of security. It's defied so many things; fire, frost, even packs of starlings."

Read: Streets of London hit by rise in homeless sleeping rough

Big Ben weighs 13.5 British tons (15.1 US tons, 13.7 metric tons). The Elizabeth Tower, which houses it, is 96 meters (315 feet) tall and is believed to be the most photographed building in the United Kingdom. 

London Parlamentsgebäude (picture alliance/dpa/S.Rousseau)

The Palace of Westminster on the bank of the River Thames

The major renovation project will include dismantling the elaborate machinery that enables the clock to keep time accurately - each cog will be examined and refurbished. The clock's four dials will also be cleaned and repaired, their cast iron framework renewed and the hands removed and refurbished.

The clock has been silenced for repairs in the past, but this will be the longest bell-free period since the structure was completed in 1859. One working clock face will remain visible, telling the time silently, but it will be powered by a modern electric motor until the original clockwork mechanism is restored. All the other bells which chime every 15 minutes will be silent as well during the works that are scheduled for completion in 2021 at an estimated cost of 29 million pounds ($37.7 million, 31.9 million euros).

Watch video 25:59

Brexit - the clock is ticking

se, bik/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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