Time, ladies and gents, time…
Once clock towers were the nation’s timepieces, now they’re much-loved landmarks
There was a time when only the wealthy had watches or clocks, while the rest of the population relied on clock towers to summon them to prayers and get them to work on time.
Some of our nation’s favourite landmarks – indeed one of Britain’s most globally recognisable buildings, Big Ben – served, in their day, no other purpose than to let people know what the time was. Erected in the centre of the community and built tall so they would be visible and audible from afar, many early examples were built as faceless bell towers; a bell would ring on the hour. Gradually, though, clock-tower builders integrated clock faces into the towers, so people could see the time whenever they needed to.
Among the finest in Britain is Salisbury Cathedral’s clock tower, which was built in 1386 and is the oldest working medieval clock in the world, and the belfry in St Albans, built between 1403 and 1412. Here are some of the UK’s most notable clock towers:
© Historic Royal Palaces
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey
Henry VIII’s magnificent clock at his favourite palace is a thing of beauty. Gracing Anne Boleyn’s Gate, the huge astronomical clock was commissioned by Henry in 1540 and is one of the finest late-medieval examples in existence. Made by French clockmaker Nicholas Oursian and designed by the Bavarian astronomer Nicholas Cratzer, the clock’s mechanism is extremely complicated. It gives the hour, month, day, position of the sun in the ecliptic, signs of the zodiac, the phases of the moon, and even the time of high tide in London, so Henry would know the best time to travel to and from Hampton Court.
Tolbooth Steeple, Glasgow
Built between 1625 and 1627 by John Boyd, this enormous steeple once belonged to a much larger building – the Tolbooth, which housed a town hall and prison. However, for nearly a century, it has stood resplendent in its stately isolation, the other parts of the Tolbooth having long gone. Glaring down on Glasgow Cross (once the city’s centre), its seven storeys lumber upwards to a height of 38m (126ft), and its plain dials are topped with a crown.
Downham Market, Norfolk
This very pretty black and white gothic Victorian clock tower was built by William Cunliff of London and presented to the town in 1878 by local businessman James Scott. Its four dials were originally illuminated by gas and its rectangular clock chamber, topped by some intricate tracery and a jaunty weathervane, rests on an octagonal pedestal.
Chester’s striking clock would probably have been the most photographed clocktower in the world had it not been for Big Ben. Eastgate, commissioned in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and opened two years later for her 80th birthday, is encased in a wrought-iron cube designed by local architect John Douglas. The mechanism is by JB Joyce; the company carried on winding up the clock until 1992 when an electric mechanism was installed. Stay just moments away from the clocktower at The Chester Grosvenor.
Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben), London
Elizabeth Tower – wrongly but most commonly known as Big Ben – was completed in 1859 and is actually the third tower to have graced Parliament – the first was built between 1288 and 1290, and the second, which held England’s first chiming clock, went up in 1367 and down in 1707. The dials of the clock we know so well were started by Edward John Dent and finished by his stepson Frederick. They measure seven metres in diameter and are made of cast iron and pot opal glass. Big Ben was renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Stay nearby at The Goring, The Athenaeum or The Capital.
Article written by Xenia Taliotis