It takes a boffin to know a really old clock.
Cathedral clocks are a specialism indeed: one must be an enthusiastic horologist to want to traipse up the stairs of a cathedral tower to inspect one. By the time TR Robinson ascended the stairs at Salisbury Cathedral in 1928, the brand new clock installed in 1884 was no longer a newcomer. Robinson was coming to see it at work.
So few people must go up there. When he arrived, not only was there a glorious 19th century clock, but also the skeletal remains remains of another, far older timepiece.
Everyone had quite forgotten it.
Tar-black, with fairy tale rough cogs and escapement mechanisms, Mr Robinson took one look at it and began to try to date it.
He found mention of just such a clock in the Deeds of 1386: an old, faceless clock which made its presence known by chiming the hour through days and nights for what much have seemed to its old iron frame like an eternity.
It used the earliest form of mechanical timekeeping – as distinct from water, or sand, or sunlight – which was called a verge escapement. A wheel with teeth which measured the passing of time, tick by tick, driven by weights which hung from a horizontal bar:
And TR Robinson’s discovery and detective work caused the scales to fall from the eyes of the people of Salisbury, and they realised that crouching in the corner of the clock tower at Salisbury was a treasure indeed.
It was fully reconditioned in 1956. Messrs John Smith and Sons of Derby took it into their workshops and made several visits to the Science Museum in London to compare it with other ancient working timepieces. They took off the pendulum someone had welded on at some point in the vast stretch of the clock’s life, and replaced it once again with a verge and foliot mechanism. It could even strike the hour again, after all that time.
Today it sits in the North Nave Aisle, the wonder and fascination of all who shuffle past; its owners claim it is the oldest working mechanical clock in the world. Though, to be fair, I should mention that the French brag the clock of Beauvais Cathedral was built in 1305, and the Italians claim the title for their clock in Chioggia, Italy, which was working in 1386.
It weaves its spell, after all this time. It has marked the passing of the hours for mediaeval surfs and 21st century tourists alike.