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Clocks in Westminster that have stood the test of time

Big Ben is not the only famous time keeper in the borough

09 February, 2018 — By The Xtra Diary

One of Westminster’s famous clocks

AS readers of Diary will know, last week we mused on the forthcoming work at the Palace of Westminster to overhaul, restore and renovate our country’s parliament.

But any visitor to Westminster will also note that work has been under way for over a year on the Elizabeth Tower, that houses of Big Ben – and that the famous clock faces are still shrouded in scaffolding.

Now the fact we all carry mobile phones with us and therefore have an accurate way to read the time might make such public clocks redundant, but there can be no doubt they brighten up our streetscapes, and for those who enjoy gazing up at them (and, if you’re like Diary, enjoy the thought of the craftsmanship that has gone into creating the accurate mechanics behind them) they provide a welcome respite from the traffic, adverts and general hustle and bustle of the West End. They also act as a very public way of reminding us of our mortality as we go about our daily business.

The clock at Horse Guards Parade was known as the most accurate on the world – until the clock at parliament was unveiled in 1859. And it carries with it a piece of history too; a black mark on its face denotes the exact moment at 2pm on the January 30 1649 that Charles I was executed.

And for those who miss wandering over Westminster Bridge and gazing at the Elizabeth Clock Tower, you can find an exact, miniature replica of it by Victoria station. Known as Little Ben, it is cast in iron and sits on the corner of Vauxhall Bridge Road.

Moving north west to Baker Street, the majestic art deco clock gracing the tower on what was the HQ for the Abbey National building society has a unique tale behind it. The building was constructed in 1930 but in 2002 plans were laid to demolish and replace the 10-storey edifice.

However, the clock on its roof had to be preserved, meaning a careful engineering project was put in place on the busy street to build a steel frame that would support the clock while the building beneath was demolished.

Engineers worked floor by floor to weld a steel brace together to support the clock as demolition  experts followed them, taking each storey down as they went.

But perhaps Diary’s favourite is that one that graces the Queen’s grocers, Fortnum and Mason, on Piccadilly.

It chimes every hour and when the minute hand hits 12, a series of chimes playing 18th-century ditties ring out, played on 18 miniature bells.

And there is more: as this takes place, two small doors open and figures of the first Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason swing out, bow politely to the street, and then slide gently back inside.

It was added to the front of the store in 1964. Designed by Berkley Sutcliffe, he worked as the in-house designer and also a theatrical designer. Weighing in at three tons, the front of the store had to be strengthened, to ensure it could take the weight, and its bells were made at the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where Big Ben was also cast. Kept clean by accessing a small hatch hidden in the wall of the perfume and fashion department, it is still runs using the original mechanical workings.

While we may not need clocks to tell us to speed up or slow down, they continue to make our streets brighter places and have stood the test of time.

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