Big Ben: Probably the World's Most Famous Clock

Questa meraviglia dell’architettura neogotica si eleva con tutto il suo simbolismo vicino al palazzo di Westminster, la sede del governo britannico.

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Big Ben: Probably the World's Most Famous Clock

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Big Ben is the world’s most famous clock. With four faces and a tall spire, the imposing neo-Gothic tower is one of London’s most iconic landmarks. It is part of Westminster Palace, popularly known as the Houses of Parliament, which is a Grade I listed building, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For over a century and a half, Big Ben has chimed every hour, keeping Londoners on time. The name actually refers to the 13-ton bell inside. The tower itself was called St. Stephen’s Tower, until it was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.

GOTHIC REVIVAL

Big Ben was built after the Great Fire of 1834, which destroyed the original Palace of Westminster. A clock tower was proposed for the redesign, with one great bell and four quarter bells. It was created by Charles Barry, in collaboration with Augustus Pugin, a young Gothic Revival architect. Pugin added symbols of the four parts of the United Kingdom: the leek for Wales, the thistle for Scotland, the rose for England and the shamrock for Ireland. He also included the Tudor symbols of the portcullis and fleur-de-lys.

The portcullis was a recurring theme in the design of the Houses of Parliament. It is still the coat of arms of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Pugin died young, before the tower was finished.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The great bell first rang out on 11 July 1859. It was soon nicknamed Big Ben. The origins of the nickname are unclear. It might relate to English boxing champion Ben Caunt. It is more likely named after Sir Benjamin Hall, a minister who supervised the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament. The Times newspaper reported at the time: “All bells, we believe, are christened before they begin to toll and on this occasion it is proposed to call our king of bells ‘Big Ben’ in honour of Sir Benjamin, the president of the board of works, during whose tenure of office it was cast.”

KEEPING TIME

Big Ben was then the largest and most accurate clock in the world. Like any building however, it is affected by age, weather conditions, pollution and once, in 1944, a flock of birds. Its timekeeping has been controlled using coins placed on the pendulum. A dedicated team would add or remove coins to speed it up or slow it down.

The bells were silenced in 2017, when the tower closed for repairs. “The Victorians did not plan for thousands of visitors to climb the 334 steps to the belfry and hear Big Ben strike the hour,” the Parliament website explains. The bells have now returned to regular service.

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