Nic Dakin MP

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The Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben Refurbishment

BigBen.jpgThe UK Parliament this week announced a three-year programme of essential works to conserve the Elizabeth Tower, the Great Clock and the Great Bell, also known as Big Ben, which is due to begin in early 2017.

Completed in 1856, the Elizabeth Tower was designed by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Wellby Pugin, and took 13 years to build. The Great Clock was first installed in the Clock Tower in April 1859 and has served for over 157 years of nearly unbroken service. Today, the Elizabeth Tower suffers from problems common in buildings of a similar age. The last time significant work was carried out to the Tower was in 1983-85.

When the Tower was built over 157 years ago, workplace health and safety and fire prevention systems were not included. In addition to the conservation work, other work will be carried out to improve and upgrade health and safety and fire prevention for staff and visitors within the Tower, including installing a lift.

The existing black and gold colouring around the clock dials was applied in the 1980s. Parliament’s team of conservation architects is currently analysing the original paint used to decorate the surrounding areas to each clock dial. Once a clear picture of the early colour schemes has been built up, the stonework will be repainted to reflect, as far as possible, Pugin’s original design.

As the Tower is 96 metres tall, scaffolding is needed to enable workers to reach high levels safely. Scaffolding will be dismantled as the work is completed from the top, and at least one clock face will be on show at all times. As a Grade I listed building within a UNESCO World Heritage site, the 160-year-old Tower is subject to listed building consent. This programme of works has been carefully planned in consultation with Historic England.

The clock mechanism will need to be stopped for several months in order to carry out essential maintenance. During this period there will be no chiming or striking. Striking and tolling will be maintained for important events. The bells did not chime for a period of around nine months when the clock underwent a major overhaul in 1976. In 2007 the bells were stopped for a period of 6 weeks, whilst essential maintenance works were carried out.

The lantern at the top of the Elizabeth Tower is called the Ayrton Light, lit when either House of Parliament is sitting after dark. It was installed in 1885 at the request of Queen Victoria so that she could see from Buckingham Palace when the members were sitting. The light also shines in all directions to show everyone when either House is sitting. The Ayrton Light needs to be fully dismantled and restored. A substitute light will shine whilst the Ayrton light is being repaired.

Steve Jaggs, Keeper of the Clock, said: “This historic clock is loved by so many people. It is both an honour and a great responsibility to keep it in good working order for public enjoyment. Every day our team of highly skilled clock mechanics cares for this Victorian masterpiece but, in order to keep the Clock ticking, we must now take the time to thoroughly inspect and restore it.”

Keith Scobie-Youngs FBHI ACR, Clock maker, the Cumbria Clock Company, said: “The Great Clock is one of the finest examples of Victorian clock making. It is a wonderful clock, with huge significance to the nation. Having been in operation for so many years, it is absolutely vital that time is taken to really investigate the mechanism and understand any potential problems which may have an impact on its accuracy. ”


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