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Hickory, Dickory, Dock...

Updated: Aug 7

The mouse went up the clock.

Possibly, if since 1996, it may have been a dormouse, or at least a Daw-mouse. At the time of writing, I have been winding the church clock of St Nicholas, Castle Hedingham, for twenty-six years.

Photograph of the church clock

That might sound an impressive achievement, but a remarkable aspect of this particular clock's history is that it has only ever had three "permanent" winders since it was first installed in April 1906. Bennett Smith, the first, ran a shop in Falcon Square, overlooked by the tower. He used the cottage I now own as his workshop. He wound the clock from new until 1948, though of course he must have had a few years' break during the 40s.

Next came Ernie "Bunny" Brown, a renowned engineer who lived in Sudbury Road, at least during the few years that we both lived in the village. It must have been quite something to take over from the man who had cared for the clock for its entire forty-two years, and I can't help but wonder if forty-two was a target. If it was, then he cracked it, because it was 1996 before the tower steps and - in particular - the winding mechanism for the bell became too much for Bunny, as he explained to me during his handover that spring. Bunny passed away two years later, but is commemorated in the church by the ringers' peel records, by a framed copy of a Halstead Gazette article about his career as a winder, and by the church gate that leads onto Church Ponds.

Photograph of the clock winder's log, with three names and dates in original handwriting

It doesn't, in many ways, seem like twenty-six years since that day. I certainly still feel like the rookie, with Bunny (and possibly Bennett) looking down at me with a tut. I am still the rookie, of course - I am sixteen years short of leaving last place.

One of the things I love about the tower is its timelessness, and that is at least part of the reason that time does not seem to have moved. At one point, the platform in front of the clock, perched above the bells, was deemed too dangerous, and wooden guards were installed to stop the winder from falling (they also stopped the crank handle from being able to turn through the full 360 degrees until I pointed this out, and modifications had to be made). New lighting was installed. The bell frame required reinforcement to compensate for the work of many generations of deathwatch beetles. None of these, though, made particularly noticeable differences, and without disturbance pretty much everything else was utterly unaltered: the old sacking that is quietly decomposing on the floor (I'm definitely not moving that, and I sometimes wonder if it hides unsavoury secrets...); the old Nescafe jar that I think might possibly contain oil; the clock winders' log and the Smiths of Derby maintenance record, the former with its three names and dates, the latter a document from a bygone age, pre-computer, and bearing the signatures of generations of engineers; the dust of the ages and, above all, the bricks and the timbers.

The clock mechanism is large, of course, but sometimes it still feels odd that I can control the mighty hands on both the clock faces on the outside of the tower and above the west arch in the nave by simply turning a rather small disc. Last year, whilst killing time when resetting the clock to GMT in October, which involves turning said disc back through the hour in stages to avoid tripping the bell strike mechanism, or stopping the clock, I happened to take a peek into the clock's case. I'd never done this before, at least not with a torch, and it's pretty dark in there, even in daytime. On the floor was another helping of the dust and the oily sacking I've already mentioned, a key, some Smiths job cards...and also another object: a Terry's nougat wrapper, from a much earlier age. A Google search revealed countless Terry's wrappers, and I think mine - the tower's - probably dated to the 50s. Bunny's era, just. A contributor to the Castle Hedingham Past and Present Facebook group was able to confirm that he actually did have a reputation for always having a pocketful of sweets. The wrapper is, of course, back in situ again now, and won't be moved on my watch (or wind).

Old Terry's Nougat wrapper, possibly from the 1950s, on floor of clock case

I think that change is usually necessary. However, in the case of the clock, I'd prefer change to pass us by. It has been suggested that the clock should be modernised, and wound electrically. The only advantage of this, as far as I can see, is that it would save a ten-minute job (that's door-to-door: my home door) once a week, or once every ten days if one trusts oneself to remember. In the time I have been winding the clock, it has stopped three times: once when the hands required lubrication (scaffolding. I'm not going up there on a ladder. In fact, I'm not going up there at all); once when I was unwell; and yesterday. (In case you're wondering about yesterday, the answer is that I don't know! Possibly, it was the clock's way of reminding me to write this piece.) Apart from its proven reliability, let's keep this as it is, instantly recognisable by Bunny, by Bennett, by the Rev Twist, who donated it when Queen Victoria was still warm(ish).


Simon Daw

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