Proud Britons assembled beneath Big Ben yesterday at noon to witness the last chimes of the world's most important clock.
Planned maintenance means that Westminster's iconic clocktower will be out of action for four years, with scaffolding already smothering the lower half of the tower and plenty more to come. It seems some government committee decided the bell needed to be switched off to protect workmen's hearing, thanks to European health and safety legislation, which means no more bongs until 2021.
Thousands turned up in Parliament Square to wave the old girl off, while patriotic MPs gathered in the courtyard at the foot of St Stephen's Tower. Many had their phones poised to capture the bell's last hurrah for posterity, perhaps to replay as a crumb of comfort during the upcoming drought.
Dozens of TV crews had pitched up on the grass facing the Houses of Parliament, this being an event of international significance. In amongst them were several blue-jacketed guides handing out cut price vouchers for tours of the Palace, although their leaflet described Big Ben as 'the Great Bell', a glaring inaccuracy which suggested their special offer might be somewhat suspect.
At a few seconds to noon the familiar strains of the Westminster Chimes rang out from high overhead. Everyone stopped and looked up, enraptured, as the sixteen note prelude to the big event played through. In the short silence that followed both hands on the clock nudged closer to the vertical position, and then the first of twelve final bongs was heard.
The crowd swiftly hushed, their reverent silence interrupted only by the occasional bawling child and the growl of traffic intermittently streaming past. How familiar the sound, but also how fragile. These were the very same chimes which Queen Victoria herself once heard, which introduced Winston Churchill's finest speeches to the nation, and which stir the soul each night before the Shipping Forecast.
Every note which rang out was a reminder of the great clock's longevity, the importance of tradition and the unshakeable confidence of our island nation. A shiver ran through the collective backbone of all those present. Those planning ahead counted the chimes to be certain which was the last, while others lost track partway through, so only knew the tolling was over after the last reverberation finally faded away.
As one, the crowd burst forth into a spontaneous round of applause. Together they demonstrated their heartfelt approval with their hands, then with their voices, as a loud cheer went up across the square and along Westminster Bridge. If only the bell could have heard their approval how proud it would have been, but instead workmen moved in and clamped it tightly to prevent it from ever chiming again.
What kind of country switches off its prime timepiece for four whole years? I'm no expert, but surely the repairs can't be so difficult that Big Ben must be silenced until 2021. We must finish them sooner, tracking down deaf clockmenders if need be, and send them up onto the scaffolding 24 hours a day. Let us regain some of that Dunkirk Spirit! The current maintenance timescale makes no sense whatsoever.
Apparently the bell will be restarted for Remembrance Day, Remembrance Sunday and New Year's Eve, so that's something. But why can we not undertake this complex restitution every evening after the day's work is complete? And what of St George's Day, the Queen's Birthdays and The Day We Leave Europe? The greatest celebrations of our lives will surely ring hollow without the moral support of the Westminster Chimes.
Also, not enough people turned up in Parliament Square yesterday to bid farewell. True Britons would have paid their respects in person, providing true comfort at this desperately sad moment in our island's history, and their failure to show up reveals a real poverty of imagination. What is wrong with our country that we accept this bureaucratic travesty without a fight?
Most onlookers had vanished by quarter past twelve, when the first unnatural silence kicked in, and almost all had fled by one o'clock when the truly historic event occurred - nothing bonged. But let us celebrate the fact that thousands of people did come to see, and cheer, something they could have heard every hour on the hour every day for the past several decades. What sweet rapture it was to experience the truly ordinary one last time.