[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 7 April 2006, 04:19 GMT 05:19 UK
Clockwatcher faces testing time
By Jane Mower
BBC News

The Great Westminster Clock was fully functional by 1859

The prospect of working on New Year's Eve in a cold, eerie tower, high above the streets of London would be enough to deter most from applying for a job.

But for self-confessed clock-watcher Ian Wentworth this was a dream come true - looking after the Great Westminster Clock and Big Ben, which is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

The clock engineer at Westminster Palace is one of three people with the huge responsibility of ensuring the accuracy of the historic timepiece.

But the enormity of his role is rarely acknowledged.

Mr Wentworth said: "No-one believes me when I tell them what I do."

The task is extremely demanding as his predecessor Brian Tipper will testify, spending 25 consecutive New Year's Eves up the Clock Tower.

Spiral staircase

And his unfaltering dedication was rewarded when the 65-year-old, from Penge in south-east London, collected an MBE from the Queen earlier this year.

Stepping into his well-worn shoes, Mr Wentworth said it was an honour to take up the mantle.

"It's a fantastic building to work in and just to be able to say you look after Big Ben is a great honour.

"It is the pinnacle of the clock world, people come to London just to see this clock."

Big Ben

Stepping through the wooden door marked 'Clock Tower' into a cold, concrete stairwell, he begins a journey into a world where time has almost stood still.

The only way up the tower is via the 393 steps of a spiral staircase which Mr Wentworth must climb three times a week in order to wind the clock.

Behind the four famous clock faces is the room which houses what is still the largest, most powerful and most accurate striking public clock in the world.

The timepiece, which has ticked for almost 150 years, stands in the appropriately named 'Clock Room' like a museum exhibit.

Pre-decimal pennies

A unique flatbed design, it was built by Edward Dent and fully operational in 1859.

Reinforcing the great age and precision of this machinery, pre-decimal pennies are used to adjust the timing. Placing an extra penny onto the head of the pendulum adds around two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.

It's a big part of life, I'm always early and I hate people who are late
Ian Wentworth, clock engineer

Its semi-automatic system is used to wind the clock but it still takes the brute force of two men to turn the handles up to 120 times.

Above this mass of cogs and wheels are five large bells, four of which chime the quarter hours and, weighing in at 13.5 tonnes, is Big Ben itself.

As the huge hammer crashes against the bell in a somewhat jerky motion, the engineers, sensibly wearing ear defenders, check the accuracy of the chimes against a reading taken from the speaking clock.

Mr Wentworth admits his life is ruled by time.

Facts and figures
The Great Westminster Clock was operational by 1859
The clock tower is 315ft (96 metres) tall
The clock weighs about five tonnes
Each clock face is 23ft (seven metres) in diameter
Each hour hand is 8ft (2.7 metres) long, weighs 300kg and each numeral is 2ft (60cm) long
Big Ben is 8ft (2.7 metres) wide, 7ft (2.2 metres) high and weighs 13.5 tonnes
"It's a big part of life, I'm always early and I hate people who are late.

"There are constant reminders all around you so I always know what time of day it is."

Standing the test of time, the clock has stopped only a handful of times.

The last time was on 29 May 2005 when the temperature inside the clock tower reached 70C at 2100 BST.

Snow accumulation on the hands caused it to ring in the New Year 10 minutes late in 1962.

But during the Second World War, despite dozens of attacks by Luftwaffe bombers, the clock kept within one and a half seconds of GMT.

Big Ben time-keeper awarded MBE
15 Feb 06 |  London
Big Ben chimes stoppage mystery
28 May 05 |  London
Big Ben's chimes ring out again
09 May 04 |  London
Big Ben becomes sound sculpture
08 Mar 04 |  Entertainment


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific