Today was a very special day. At noon I was standing near Big Ben with thousands of other Londoners and tourists. As he started to chime, everyone raised their mobile phones to capture the moment. When he finished, the crowd broke into applause. We had all gathered there to hear Big Ben’s final chimes – at least for a while. The bells will be silent for nearly four years while the tower and clock undergo a restoration that is projected to last until 2021 and cost £29m.
As things get older, they need more maintenance. (This is a lesson I’m learning as I age.) Big Ben has been standing there chiming away for about 157 years now, so I guess he probably does need a bit of attention. His last renovation was done more than 30 years ago.
The tower will be surrounded by scaffolding during the work, but one clock face should be visible at all times. The bells will still be able to chime for special events such as ringing in the new year.
Today I thought I would just share a few curious Big Ben facts that you might find interesting.
10 Things You Might Not Know About Big Ben
1. Big Ben’s names
Today when people talk about Big Ben, they mean the tower, clock, and bells – the whole package. Originally, though, Big Ben was the nickname for the largest bell. Each part of the structure has an official name: The largest bell is the “Great Bell,” and the clock is the “Clock of Westminster.”
As for the tower, Victorian journalists called it St. Stephen’s Tower, but its official name has always been the “Clock Tower.” That is, until 2012, when it was renamed the “Elizabeth Tower” in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s sixty years on the throne. But nobody cares about all those names. To people around the world, the whole shebang is simply Big Ben.
2. The Great Bell
The first Great Bell, weighing 16 tons, was cast in 1856. It cracked before it was even installed in the tower and had to be melted down and recast. The second Great Bell was made two years later and was 2 ½ tons lighter. Two months after the second bell was installed, it cracked too. The hammer was replaced with a lighter one and the bell was turned so it would be struck in a different location. This is the bell that still rings today.
3. Light at the Top
There is a light at the top of the tower called the Ayrton Light. It’s lit when either House of Parliament is sitting after dark. Supposedly, Queen Victoria requested it in 1885 so she could gaze out her window at Buckingham Palace and see if the politicians were working. This light should still be functioning during renovations, so Parliament can’t get away with going home early.
4. The Silent Minute
In 1940 the Silent Minute was introduced. It was a time of silence each evening at 9.00 pm. It took Big Ben one minute to chime out the hour and people took that time to pray, meditate, or send out thoughts for peace in the world and an end to World War II – read more about that here. Big Ben Silent Minute: Chimes and Prayers for Peace
The tower contains 399 steps. A lift will be installed during the renovation, but unfortunately, it will not be for visitor usage. UK residents and British citizens (with appointments) have been able to visit the tower, but all visits will be stopped during renovation.
6. Leaning Tower of London
The tower does lean a bit due to the ground settling after the construction of the Underground.
7. The Clock Faces
Each of the four clock faces is 23ft (seven meters) in diameter and composed of around 312 sections of opal glass. The hour hands are 9.2ft (2.8m) in length; the minute hands are 14ft (4.3m).
8. Clock Speed
The clocks speed is adjusted by adding or subtracting an old penny coin from the pile of pennies on the pendulum. Each penny will change the clock’s speed by two fifths of one second per day.
Sometimes other things can affect the speed of the clock: In 1944 the great clock was slowed by a flock of starlings that thought one of the clock hands looked like a good rest stop. In 1962 Big Ben chimed in the New Year ten minutes late because of heavy snow and ice slowing down the hands.
9. Little Ben
There is a small replica of Big Ben near Victoria Station. This clock stays permanently on Daylight Savings Time which means that in summer it has the correct UK time and in winter, it shows the time in France. On the base of the clock is a little poem:
Apology for Summer Time
My hands you may retard or may advance,
my heart beats true for England as for France.
For more about Big Ben see my other articles:
- Big Ben in his own words– an excerpt from a story I contributed to The Wisdom of Monuments book called Big Ben: A Handsome London Monument
- Big Ben Silent Minute: Chimes and Prayers for Peace
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