Winding the Wells

One of the highlights of a visit to Wells Cathedral is seeing the oldest surviving clock face in the world, in the north transept. Above the face, jousting knights on horseback do battle, with one unfortunate being knocked over. Looking on, a figure called Jack Blandifer chimes bells each quarter-hour. Originally the knights charged every hour, but due to tourist demand the display was modified in the 1960s to allow a shorter joust to happen every 15 minutes. The knights switched from horsepower to electric power. Here’s a video.

A 1961 travel advertisement for Wells (NRM / Science & Society)

Other parts of the clock remained hand-wound, carrying on a tradition of over 600 years. It’s a time-consuming job and the clock is now going to be wound automatically.

However, the original medieval clock from Wells Cathedral is still wound by hand. The mechanism, which was installed in the cathedral in 1392, was replaced in 1837. It came to the Patent Museum in 1871, and has been part of the Science Museum’s collections since 1884. Currently on display in our Measuring Time gallery, it’s the second-oldest working mechanical clock in England, after the one in Salisbury Cathedral (although that is not regularly run).

A detail of the Wells clock (Science Museum).

The daily job of winding the clock is done by Richard from our Conservation team. Each morning, he winds the clock’s three gear trains (one would have controlled the interior and exterior clock faces, one the hour actions and one the quarter-hour actions). The whole process can take up to half an hour and Richard says it’s a very good workout! Read an interview with him here.

Fast hands: Richard winds the Wells (Alison Boyle).

The clock keeps very good time, only losing a few seconds per day. And our Conservation team keeps other clocks in the gallery running too – more about that in a future blog.

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