Times, they are a changing

London is home to the most famous clock in the world. Probably the most iconic picture of the UK capital features Big Ben or, as we should more correctly call it, the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben is the nickname of the bell).

At the end of last month, when we were all trying to remember to put our clocks forward one hour, I just wondered how this works out with the huge timepiece which first chimed out over London in 1859.

Well, the Palace of Westminster has three full-time clockmakers looking after the astonishing 2,000 clocks there and they do the hard work, twice a year when the clocks change.

There is no lift in the tower so they have to climb the 334 stairs to get to the clock itself. Then, at 8.30pm, the lights behind the clock go out and, until 2am, the clockmakers go to work just getting the hands to move forward one hour.

Apparently at around 10pm, the giant hands start racing around and at no other time of year is the clock allowed to be wrong (the clock is widely acclaimed as one of the most accurate timepieces in the world).

The main driving mechanism still has to be wound manually which seems so odd in a digital age but the clockmakers take huge pride in their work and take turns at this hard labour.

The 16-tonne bell itself was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London and is actually slightly cracked – this is what people say gives Big Ben its unique resonance. Creating an ear-splitting 114 decibels means the clockmakers must wear ear defenders at all times when working anywhere near the 5 metre diameter bell.

But Big Ben is not the biggest clock in London. No, this accolade belongs to Big Benzene, the clock on the fantastic, art deco Shell Mex building just along the Thames by the Savoy and there are plenty more interesting public clocks in the capital.

One of my children’s’ favourites is the pretty chiming clock with moving figures on Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly. Amazingly, this only dates from 1964 but looks much older and the 1.5 metre figures who prance around are the original store founders, Messrs Fortnum and Mason.

You may not be surprised to hear that the Shepherd Gate Clock at Greenwich, with its 24-hour dial, does not bother springing forward to British Summer Time. No, this clock, which was originally installed in 1852 (but now runs on a quartz mechanism!), sticks resolutely to Greenwich Mean Time of course.

Having the same time zone is one of those quirky things that Portugal has in common with the UK, which makes travelling between the two countries that bit more simple. Strangely, this has nothing to do with the oldest treaty in the world that has existed between the two friendly nations since 1373. No, this has more to do with the rather odd decision of other European countries to align with Central European Time (CET) against the logic of their longitudinal position! Time after time indeed.

By Richard Lamberth