Timing is everything, or how many virgers does it take to change the clock?
It’s been an unusual week – again. Sadly, I wasn’t able to take my promised holiday at the Virgers’ five-star seaside resort in the Bahamas as there was work to do in the Minster – the clock in the north tower has been much in our thoughts.
Normally we can virtually forget about it – the mechanism may be over 100 years old but the electric motor that powers it is a splendid British thingy that was built in the days of the Empire and should last another century or so. Granted, we sometimes have to adjust it forward or back by a minute or so, but that’s rare.
But once a year, the clock has to be ABSOLUTELY accurate- last weekend was that occasion – and it’s a two-virger job, believe me.
On Remembrance Sunday every second counts and the chimes must be spot on because people all around the country are listening to the radio or watching television for the start of the Two Minute Silence – it’s a moment that permits no errors.
It’s a job that must be done as close as possible to the day itself because, in the cold conditions of wintertime, the clock can slow down by a second or so overnight.
So, we start the process by synchronising our watches with TIM – and that’s the last part of the process that uses modern technology.
Strangely, the Victorians never thought of the convenience of the virgers when they built and installed the great ticking thing so it’s not as easy as it might be. In fact it’s a real combination of physical dexterity and patience.
Firstly, of course, you have to get to the clock – it’s up nearly 100 steps via a narrow spiral staircase, so that’s always something to be enjoyed.
Then, when we get to the glass-fronted cabinet that houses the clock the fun really starts.
Oh yes, the intricate brass dial that we use to count off the seconds (with hands going anti-clockwise – don’t ask why) is fairly easy to read at the front of the mechanism, but the critical part of the controller is at the back, squeezed against the wall.
One virger has to crawl under the machine, lie on their back and stick their arm through a narrow space, then grab two thin stubs of metal that they clasp together.
The other virger stares intently at the brass dial.
Grabbing the stubs of metal disengages the regulator and the clock speeds up. If you are outside you will see the 10 foot long hands on the tower belting round the dial at a great rate of knots – it’s even better when we’re winding the clock on for British Summertime and you’ve got the whole hour to catch up.
The second virger calls out instructions, to grab it, let go, grab it, hold it…
All the unfortunate underling can do while this process is underway is stare hard at the black-painted machine above and hope the other idiot gets it right soon.
And then, when you’re both exhausted, you merely have to dislocate your shoulder, disengage your arm from the mechanism, reverse limbo back out into the bright light, brush yourself down, chase away the spiders, wipe off the excess machine oil and climb downstairs again.
Last year, with my watch fully synchronised, I spent the rest of the day hoping desperately that someone would ask me for the time, but no one did. Ironically I was late home that night.