Big Ben is leaning; Parliament wants to straighten things out

Big Ben, the most iconic structure in Britain, is leaning


This story has been updated. See the note below.

REPORTING FROM LONDON -- Time stands still for no one. In London, it doesn't even stand straight.

Big Ben, perhaps the most iconic structure in all of Britain, is leaning, and the lawmakers who work in the shadow of the famous clock tower are trying to figure out what to do about it.

Members of Parliament gathered at the House of Commons on Monday to discuss a report containing some drastic solutions to deal with the problem, even though it will be thousands of years before Big Ben achieves the precarious slant of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Among the suggestions: temporarily relocating Parliament while costly repair work takes place on both the clock and the Palace of Westminster, where lawmakers meet, or selling off the entire complex to a rich foreign developer.

Neither option is likely to be accepted in the near future. Nor is Big Ben expected to imminently topple over into the river that flows at its feet.

"The House of Commons authorities would be surprised if the clock tower fell into the Thames any time soon," Thomas Docherty, a Labor Party lawmaker, was quoted as saying. But "it may well be raised with the speaker [of the house] on Monday. Given that Big Ben is situated over the speaker's apartments, he may have a view on it."

[Updated 2:23 p.m. Jan. 23: After its meeting Monday, the House of Commons Commission announced that it would conduct a yearlong study of the options for long-term upkeep of the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben, with no renovation work until 2020 at the earliest. Officials stressed that both the palace and clock tower remain "structurally sound."]

A surveyor’s report last year revealed the top of the 314-foot-tall tower to be about 18 inches off the vertical. The tilt (0.26 degrees northwest, to be exact) lies at the tipping point, as it were, at which the lean becomes visible to the naked eye, an engineering expert told the BBC on Monday.

The cause remains unclear. Natural subsidence is one possibility, as the clay that lies deep beneath the clock slowly dries out. There has also been tunneling in the area in recent years to build a multilevel parking lot and to extend one of London's Underground lines.

Though popularly called Big Ben, the structure is more correctly known as the Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster. Big Ben is the giant bell housed within the belfry; its stately bongs at the top of each hour are recognized the world over.

The tower was completed in 1858 as part of the new Palace of Westminster, after the previous palace burned down.

"If you stand in Parliament Square [to the west] and look toward it, you can just see that it moves very slightly to the left," John Burland, an engineering professor at Imperial College in London, told the BBC. "But I wouldn't put any political slant on that."

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-- Henry Chu

Photo: Big Ben on Monday. Credit: Adrian Dennis / AFP/Getty Images

 
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