I’ll be ringing in the New Year as usual
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