After months of restoration, Big Ben is unwrapped just in time for the holidays

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

London has received an expected and very welcome Christmas gift, and nothing could have been more timely. The wrapping that has hidden much of the famous Big Ben clock tower for the past two years has come off, just in time to chime in the New Year.

The removal of scaffolding and plastic sheets from the elegant, gilt-glittering clock tower removes one of the disappointments for unsuspecting tourists, often chagrined to find the landmark frequently concealed from public view.

Renovation of the clock tower is part of the restoration that has been going on since 1981 of the Houses of Parliament, which is part of the Palace of Westminster. The effect of cleaning the neo-Gothic building of years of soot and grime is to restore attractive honey-colored tones to its previously blackened exterior.

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Work is continuing on the less conspicuous side of the palace which fronts the River Thames. When that side is complete, work will then have to begin on the 11 courtyards. It won't be until the mid-1990s that the entire operation is over.

The hope is that with the cleanup it has received, Big Ben should go another 75 years or so, or until the next return of Halley's comet, before the cleaners take on, once more, the pigeons and the soot.

Although generally inaccurately identified as a clock, Big Ben, in effect, refers only to the largest of the bells. It is supposed to have been named after Sir Benjamin Hall, who was the very rotund Commissioner of Public Works when the bells were installed. Big Ben first struck the hour on July 11, 1859. Ever since then the sound of Big Ben, often the prelude to a television or radio news broadcast, has become as distinctly British as the flying of the Union Jack.

The campanile which houses Big Ben towers more than 300 feet above the River Thames. Cleaning of the campanile alone cost 1.7 million ($2.4 million), plus 150,000 ($210,000) for the scaffolding and plastic sheeting.

Meanwhile, restoration work similar to that at the Palace of Westminster continues as an on-going project at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, and the Tate Gallery. Few landmarks, however, get as much attention as Lord Nelson atop his pedestal in Trafalgar Sqare.

An official of the Property Services Agency, responsible for the cleaning of public buildings, says, ``they're always shinnying up and down Nelson's column either to clean it or to get someone down who had got up it illegally.''

But it's Big Ben that tourists most want to capture on film.

The Property Services Agency official says his office was inundated with calls from Americans, Germans, and Japanese complaining that it had taken their hard-earned dollars, marks, and yen to get to London only to find Big Ben sheathed and scaffolded.

Such is the fascination with Big Ben that some overseas callers, he said, wanted to know ``if they came back next year whether the work will be done.''

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