I’ll be ring­ing in the New Year as usual

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Even at the weekend, there’s two of us on call 24 hours in case some­thing goes wrong with Big Ben. We’re ex­pected to be no more than one and a half hours away from the Palace, which is no prob­lem for me, as I live in Ching­ford, and can get here within half an hour on my mo­tor­bike.

On those nights, then, I have to be very care­ful, and it’s rare for me to have a drink. If I got the call at 3am, there’s no way I could get to West­min­ster on pub­lic trans­port, so I have to make sure I’m all right to drive.

Mind you, it’s very rare that any­thing does go wrong, which is in­cred­i­ble, re­ally, see­ing as three-year-old cars are al­ways break­ing down, yet this clock is over 150 years old (it first chimed in 1859).

If it was a steam train, it would have been taken away and put in a mu­seum long ago; yet here it is, a cen­tury and a half later, and, while it’s not quite as ac­cu­rate as a state-of-the-art atomic clock, it still meets the very high­est stan­dards of time­keep­ing.

But the var­i­ous mech­a­nisms still need wind­ing up, and we do that three times a week, on Mon­day, Wed­nes­day and Fri­day. If we do it just af­ter the mid­day chimes on a Fri­day, that’s enough to keep it go­ing un­til 11 o’clock on Mon­day morn­ing.

And if at any point it turns out that the clock is not telling the ex­act time, we have a way of help­ing things along, by plac­ing big pre-dec­i­mal pen­nies on top of the pen­du­lum. It’s 14 feet long and ex­tremely heavy, but if we add an ex­tra penny, it speeds the clock up by two-fifths of a sec­ond, over 24 hours, and if we take one away, it slows it down by the same amount.

Peo­ple are of­ten sur­prised to find out that the Big Ben chimes at the start of the BBC Ra­dio 4 news aren’t recorded, but are be­ing broad­cast live. But you don’t want to set your watch by that if you’re lis­ten­ing on dig­i­tal ra­dio, as there’s a six to eight-sec­ond de­lay.

Our busiest times of year are when the clocks go for­wards and back­wards. On those nights, we stop the clock at 10pm, switch off the dial lights, si­lence the strike and the chimes, and try and use the in­ter­ven­ing time for main­te­nance. Back in the Six­ties, some of this work was car­ried out by the firm run by Brian Nor­man, who is the fa­ther of Tele­graph colum­nist Matthew Nor­man (af­ter whom he named a range of car­riage clocks).

Then at 11.55pm, we phone up the speak­ing clock, set a stop­watch to the ex­act time (it’s ac­cu­rate to one-100th of a sec­ond), and then set the clock go­ing again so that the first strike of Big Ben takes place ex­actly on the hour of mid­night. If you are stand­ing near Big Ben on the night the clocks change, you’ll see the hands of the clock whizzing around from 10 to 12 mid­night.

It’s on New Year’s Eve, though, that it re­ally comes home to us how much at­ten­tion peo­ple are pay­ing to our work. It’s strange, re­ally, be­cause we’re just do­ing the same job as we do all year round, shar­ing a flask of tea, chat­ting about what we had for our sup­per, yet when you put your head out of the win­dow in the clock dial (be­tween 25 and 30 min­utes past the hour), you see th­ese thou­sands of peo­ple be­low, and you get this smell of al­co­hol in the air.

There’s added pres­sure, too, be­cause there’s

Do you have any time­piece-re­lated quirks? The top I’m wear­ing to­day has got but­tons with a clock face on. My­wife gets a bit sick of clocks, so I got the old Palace cur­tain­maker to sew them on

What fa­mous peo­ple have you guided round the Big Ben tower? On Hugh Lau­rie’s 50th birth­day, I gave him, Jools Hol­land and Stephen Fry a guided tour. They stayed so long they were late for a Prince’s Trust din­ner, and told Prince Charles: “We were vis­it­ing Big Ben and lost track of time!”

How loud are the bells? 114 deci­bels – we do wear ear pro­tec­tion.

What has stopped the clock? In 1949, a flock of star­lings landed on the minute hand and stopped it go­ing around. And in 1962 a wedge of snow froze into a solid block of ice and blocked the hands.

What’s the most num­ber of times you have been up and down Big Ben’s steps? Ten times in one day. It was dur­ing a re­pair, and our workshop is in the base­ment.

The singer Galia Arad Red wine (mal­bec) Sausages cooked on a bar­be­cue

The view of Big Ben, as you come along the Em­bank­ment

The Nor­folk town of Mun­des­ley usu­ally a huge dig­i­tal count­down screen on top of a build­ing down the river. You can be sure it’s us who have got the right time, though, not them.

Orig­i­nally, I wanted to be a mo­tor­cy­cle me­chanic, but I went off the idea when the only open­ing I could find was look­ing af­ter those tame BSA Ban­tams rid­den by Post Of­fice tele­gram boys. Mind you, I’ve made up for it in later years; on a Satur­day or Sun­day, you’ll find me work­ing on my four vin­tage mo­tor­cy­cles (I love Tri­umphs). What I en­joy the most is buy­ing them in lots of pieces, and putting them back to­gether.

I’ve al­ways been me­chan­i­cally minded; my first job was as an ap­pren­tice with Fish Brothers, who were jewellers in Waltham­stow. Af­ter I left them, I worked for my­self for a while, but I was a rub­bish busi­ness­man; I re­mem­ber per­form­ing a mir­a­cle in re­pair­ing this old lady’s grand­fa­ther clock, but when it came around to charg­ing her, I sug­gested she give me what she thought the job was worth. I went away with a jar of home-made jam.

Fact is, whether I’m at work or at home, my per­fect weekend in­volves ei­ther mend­ing or tak­ing apart some form of mech­a­nism, whether it’s a watch or an en­gine.

I’ve got a ma­roon-coloured Austin Seven mo­tor car, I’ve just re­stored an old Fifties juke­box, and my pride and joy when I was younger was a bright red 1956 bub­ble car. Well be­fore we were mar­ried, I promised my wife I’d come and pick her up in my red car; she was a bit sur­prised when she looked and saw that it only had three wheels!

If you’d told me as a teenager that one day that I’d be look­ing af­ter the most fa­mous clock in the world, I’d never have be­lieved you. I’ve even got a four-feet-high replica of Big Ben in my back gar­den; it lights up, but it doesn’t chime – that’s my next chal­lenge.

Of course, Big Ben is not the only time­piece that is our re­spon­si­bil­ity; we have 2,000 other clocks at the Palace of West­min­ster that we have to main­tain, many of them his­tor­i­cal an­tiques. On week­ends when we have to put them back or for­wards, we get in at 7am and work the whole day, ad­just­ing them. My favourite stands on the Mem­bers’ Stair­case; it was made by the great Ben­jamin Vul­liamy, and it pre­dates even the fire that de­stroyed most of the Palace in 1834.

I’m also the chair­man of the Bri­tish Watch and Clock­mak­ers Guild, which takes up a fair amount of my time at week­ends. The strange thing is, there’s ac­tu­ally quite a de­mand for me­chan­i­cally op­er­ated watches, es­pe­cially at the top end (think Rolex, Bre­itling, Patek Philippe), but there’s al­most no col­leges teach­ing the skills.

Which means that when older crafts­men die, or re­tire, those skills are lost. Hope­fully, though, this busi­ness will go the same way as plumb­ing; there’ll be a pe­riod when you can’t find a watchmaker for love nor money, fol­lowed by a pe­riod when peo­ple will start go­ing into the pro­fes­sion be­cause there’s a short­age of watch­mak­ers and the job com­mands a good wage.

As for us Guild mem­bers, when we’re not talk­ing about the fu­ture of the trade, we get into long and com­pli­cated dis­cus­sions about what kinds of oil work best in clocks (we use mo­tor oil on Big Ben). One of our mem­bers is a chap called Ge­orge, who car­ried out an ex­per­i­ment whereby he coated mech­a­nisms in dif­fer­ent oils, and waited to see how they com­pared over a pe­riod of time.

In due course, af­ter 20 years, it turned out that some oils had in­deed evap­o­rated, while oth­ers had gone black and sticky like tar. Only prob­lem was, Ge­orge couldn’t re­mem­ber which was which.

No ques­tion about it, there is some­thing spe­cial about the ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing with clocks. You just can’t de­scribe the si­lence, for ex­am­ple, when the Big Ben pen­du­lum stops. It’s deaf­en­ing.

And al­though it’s eas­ier go­ing down the stairs in the tower (there are 324 of them, and no lift), I ac­tu­ally pre­fer go­ing up the other way. No mat­ter how many times I do it, I still get goose bumps.

Time lord: when he’s not look­ing af­ter the clocks at the Palace of West­min­ster, Paul Roberson likes tin­ker­ing with mo­tor­cy­cles

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