Time’s up for historic Wells Cathedral clock-winders

The iconic Wells Cathedral clock in Somerset, in the southwest of England, was installed in the 1380s, two centuries prior to the invention of the second hand by Jost Burgi for Tycho Brahe. For generation upon generation the old clock was hand-wound, and the metal figure of Jack Blandifers toned the hour.

That’s six centuries-plus of manual time-keeping, the last 90 years of which were managed by one family, the Fishers, who, it must be told, spent “an hour three times a week turning the three 250kg weights 800 times.”

Now, according to the Daily Mail, an electric motor has replaced hand-winding. The motor’s human counterpart, Paul Fisher, age 63, is a touch fidgety, if glad to be shot clear of the task. He related a mixture of joy and sadness.

I’m a bit sad that all these years of history are coming to an end but winding the clock by hand is just so time consuming.

By the time you have walked up all the steps and winded the weights it takes at least one hour three times a week.

I feel very proud and privileged to have wound this magnificent clock and that my family has been involved in such a historic task.

Even after my retirement I will still be keeping a watchful eye on the clock’s mechanism and will look in to oil and check the time.

Here’s more on the joy part of the equation, courtesy his interview with NPR’s Melissa Block.

BLOCK: And you would have to climb way up into the clock tower to do this?

Mr. FISHER: Yeah, it’s about 55 steps. And you go down little corridors and look out over the nave as you do this. So it’s a windy journey.

BLOCK: Well, why stop winding by hand?

Mr. FISHER: Do you go to the gym three times a week?

BLOCK: Oh, I wish I did.

Mr. FISHER: And if I made you go to the gym three times a week, what would you say to that?

BLOCK: Yeah, I might not be too happy.

Mr. FISHER: It was nice to do when I was 25, but now I’m 65, or 63, actually. I’m quite happy to stop doing that.

Now, come on, dear readers: If an American web site is going to have Anglophile readers, it’s got to be one like this for Anglicans. (To say nothing of our being church mice.) Ever seen the clock in question? Any abiding memories? Or just another John Henry tale of automation?

Posted by
Category : The Lead

Comment Policy
Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted. We also ask that you limit your comments to no more than four comments per story per day.

  1. Ann Fontaine

    I have been to Wells Cathedral – it is quite breathtaking in design. Here is a pix.

  2. Lois Keen

    Have been to Wells twice. I love it. I just love it. The only other one I love as much is Ely, in an apples and oranges sort of comparison, for totally different reasons.

  3. tgflux

    Fond memory of Wells (30 years ago!).

    I am not likely related to the Fishers of Wells (my patronym, originally from Germany, lost a “c” sometime in the last 200+ years!), but I salute them nonetheless, for a job well done the past near-century.

    JC Fisher

  4. Murdoch Matthew

    About the time I worked for the Church Information Office in London, the bishop of Bath and Wells, resident in Wells, was known for swimming in the moat of the episcopal palace.

  5. Peggy Miller

    I remember the clock quite fondly. I spent a week a a member of ‘the choir in residence’ during the summer of 2008. What a welcoming place!

Comments are closed.