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What? Britain's Big Ben expected to stay (mostly) silent for at least four years

During its 150-year history, the bell known as Big Ben has remained a faithful part of the ever-changing London landscape — its chimes have marked every hour and have rung in holidays such as Christmas Day.

But on Monday, Big Ben rang its bell at noon for the last time until 2021. For four years, its bells will fall (mostly) silent while workers renovate the Elizabeth Tower, which houses the Big Ben bell and the Great Clock.

Only on special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Sunday — a day to honor those who fought in the two world wars — will its bells ring.

Over the years Big Ben has served as a reassuring and familiar sound to Londoners and a memorable experience to tourists who visit the landmark from all over the world. It is perhaps the most familiar symbol of the city, and of Britain, along with the nearby Houses of Parliament.

Here’s some background about Big Ben, its historical significance, some details about the renovation project and reactions from Britons.

What is Big Ben?

The Great Bell, commonly known as Big Ben, is a more than 150-year-old landmark that hovers 315 feet above London inside the Elizabeth Tower, near Parliament. The 13.7-ton bell chimes every hour and is accompanied by four quarter bells, which chime every 15 minutes.

Many people have come to refer to Big Ben as the tower itself, but it technically is just the bell.

After a fire destroyed the Palace of Westminster in 1834, officials decided that the new buildings for the Houses of Parliament would include a tower and a clock.

A bell was cast in Stockton-on-Tees, a town in northeastern England, in August 1856. On arrival at the Port of London, it was placed on a carriage and pulled by 16 horses across the city. Officials tested the bell daily, but in October 1857, a crack appeared, so a second bell was cast — Big Ben.

In July 1859, Big Ben first chimed, but not for long. In September of that year, a crack appeared on the new bell. Sir George Airy, a 19th century English astronomer, found a solution to prevent the crack on Big Ben from spreading.

Throughout its history, Big Ben has emerged as a symbol of British democracy and resistance, particularly during World War II, when it survived heavy German bombing.

This is not the first time that the bells have fallen fall silent. From 1983 to 1985 and in 2007, the bells stopped ringing for maintenance.

Why will Big Ben’s bells fall silent?

The Big Ben bells will go on a four-year hiatus to allow crews to safely operate during the renovation project, primarily aimed at maintaining the Elizabeth Tower and “safeguard it for future generations.”

“We understand how important this national icon is to the U.K. public and to those visiting London,” a statement from Parliament said. “Our priority is to ensure that this irreplaceable landmark is maintained for future generations, whilst also protecting the safety of those tasked with carrying out this vital work.”

The project is estimated to cost about $37 million. It started earlier this year with scaffolding. Crews then plan to renovate the very top of the tower, refurbishing the iron roofing, and work their way down the building.

During the four years, renovation work will also take place on the Great Clock, which controls the timing of the bongs that hit Big Ben’s bells, one reason that the bells will be silenced.

How have Londoners reacted?

News that the Big Ben bells will go on hiatus struck a chord with Britons. Many Brits, including lawmakers who work within earshot, expressed sadness and frustration that a centerpiece of British identity will fall silent for four years.

A handful of lawmakers gathered near the tower to hear the bell’s last chimes, including Labor member of Parliament Stephen Pound, who wiped tears from his eyes. “This is a desperately sad moment and you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” he told reporters. “I think it’s the passing of something that means a great deal to a great many people — certainly to my constituents. It’s an elegiac moment of somber sadness as the bells cease.”

Prime Minister Theresa May was among those who complained, saying it “cannot be right” to silence Big Ben’s bells for so long. She asked for a review of the timetable. In response, the House of Commons Commission said it would reconsider the length of time that the bells will be silent.

“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 given those requirements,” a statement from Parliament said.

Hundreds of people also gathered in Parliament Square to listen to the bells chime for the last time. Many took pictures of the Great Clock.

“It’s a momentous occasion,” Annette Nicholson told the BBC.

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melissa.etehad@latimes.com

Twitter: @melissaetehad

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