People gather in front of the Big Ben in central London, Britain on Aug. 21, 2017. London's famous Big Ben chimed for the last time on Monday when the famous Great Bell fell silent until 2021. (Xinhua/Stephen Chung)
by Larry Neild, Zhang Dailei
LONDON, Aug. 21 (Xinhua) -- Britain's most famous bell, Big Ben, fell silent at noon on Monday as hundreds of people gathered in London's Parliament Square to hear the bongs one last time.
The bells in the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament will not be heard again for four years, apart from rare special occasions, unless there is a change of heart.
Before the last chimes sounded, local media, residents and tourists held video recorders or smart phones, waiting for the moment.
"It's like a memorial day," one visitor from Bristol, Maria Droulias, told Xinhua, "It's really sad to know that it's not going to chime for four years. Big Ben is such a monumental part of Britain, no matter where you go, you can usually see it or hear it in London. And now all of a sudden that will be stopped and it's sort of really weird feeling."
The bell mechanism was switched off to enable essential repair and restoration work to take place to the clock tower, seen as one of the great symbols of Britain.
Steve Jaggs, keeper of the Great Clock, said: "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."
The Great Bell weighs 13.7 tonnes, is 2.2 meters high and 2.7 meters in diameter. The hammer that strikes the bell each hour weights 200 kg.
Officials at the Houses of Parliament say the bell mechanism has to be dismantled for health and safety reasons because of the risks of damage to hearing if workers are exposed to constant chiming of the bells which ring every 15 minutes. The ear piercing gongs measure 118-decibels.
Richard Thomas, a professional clock maker living in London, came here specifically to hear Big Ben strike noon for the last time possibly for several years.
"It's very symbolic to everyone in Great Britain, but it's especially symbolic for people like me. I'm a member of the British Horological Institute. It's a very important organization for training clock makers and looking after them. My colleagues will be in the tower today, looking after the clock and stopping it to strike. So it's very symbolic for me," he told Xinhua.
"It is reasonable to shut down the strikes and the chimes for the safety of the people working in the tower, but perhaps not for four years," he added.
For many Britons, the four-year silence of the symbolic bell seems unacceptable. The Great Bell of Big Ben has chimed across London since July 11, 1859, and, though it has occasionally been halted for repair or maintenance, this will be the longest period of silence in the bell's history.
The initial announcement of Big Ben's four-year shutdown provoked angry headline news in national newspapers and an outcry from a number of politicians.
Even Prime Minister Theresa May intervened to question why the bells needed to be silenced until 2021, while Brexit Secretary David Davis joined the backlash saying stopping the chimes was "mad".
Heritage minister John Glen warned that silencing the clock could deter visitors and it should continue to bong for tourists at least once a week.
One media columnist has even called for the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, to be fired over the controversy surrounding the silencing of the bells. Bercow chairs a powerful committee that has sanctioned the work program.
It forced managers at the Houses of Parliament to issue an updated statement a few days later saying: "When Parliament returns (after the summer recess), in light of concerns expressed by a number of MPs, the House of Commons Commission will consider the length of time that the bells will fall silent. Of course, any discussion will focus on undertaking the work efficiently, protecting the health and safety of those involved, and seeking to ensure resumption of normal service as soon as is practicable."
A spokesman at the parliament said: "Big Ben's bongs are an integral part of parliamentary life and we will ensure that they can resume their role as the nation's timekeeper as soon as possible."
The spokesman also explained why starting and stopping Big Ben was a complex and lengthy process: "The striking hammer is locked and the bells can then be disconnected from the clock mechanism. The weights are lowered within the weight shaft to the base of the tower and secured in a safe position. The whole process takes around half a day to complete."
During the building work, at least one clock face will continue to operate, but will be driven by an electric motor. The original mechanical clock mechanism is to be completely dismantled, refurbished and put back together in a separate operation taking around two years.