The rocky horologist’s show

The face of a very rare four train Gravell & Tolkein musical longcase clock that would not leave the purchaser with a great deal of change from £30,000. Photo Emma Moore

When it comes to time, as with so much else, accuracy is everything, but sometimes perfection is simply the point at which something just feels right.

Simon Allen of the Clock Work Shop at Abbotsbury is explaining why the precision tolerances achieved by the best engineers do not necessarily make them great clockmakers.

‘If you made a clock to the kind of minute tolerances employed in engineering it wouldn’t work,’ he says. ‘You have to have ‘end shake’ and ‘side shake’, which is to say the cogs need to have up and down movement and left and right movement. How much is just enough and how much is too much or too little is all a question of feel – you either get it or you don’t.’

And in a nutshell Simon deftly encapsulates the art and craft of his trade – some can do it; most can’t.

He is an antiquarian horologist, a clockmaker who specialises in the repair and restoration of antique clocks, and the sales floor at the Clock Work Shop has more in common with an exhibition space perhaps than with a high street retail outlet. The clocks on show all tell the time but these are far from ordinary timepieces and range from the rare and sought after, to the highly prized and historically important.

What’s particularly striking though – apart from the quarters, halves and hours that duly arrive, like clockwork in fact – is the incessant tick-tocking. Somehow it manages to speak simultaneously of both urgency and relaxation, of the need to move on and be still.

‘Funnily enough I don’t even notice it,’ says Simon. ‘In fact, I’m more likely to if one of them is slightly out than when they are all running properly.’

Although he’s still in his thirties, Simon has the tuned ear and time-honoured wisdom more readily associated with a master craftsman of older vintage. He puts much of that down to his close friendship with the world-renowned clock dealer Gerald Marsh of Winchester.

‘I was his final apprentice and, like me, he came to the trade with nothing. He worked his apprenticeship then bought the business, all the time bringing on other apprentices, until he sold up as I finished mine. He made sure we’d all be kept on, but I decided to go it alone and I think he appreciated what I was doing and ever since he has been ready to offer help and advice.

Jess Yarham-Baker, Simon Allen, Tom Hannagan aka the Abbotsbury Time Team. Photo Emma Moore

‘We’ve always taken on apprentices because I think we have a duty to pass on these skills. I learned my trade from the best and out of respect for Gerald I want to strive for this business to be the best – not only the best dealer as he was, but also the best, most trusted repairers in the world.’

For all the ambition there’s also clearly a vocational aspect to horology for Simon, but surprisingly clock making was not his first love.

‘That was cricket,’ he reveals. ‘Growing up that’s all I wanted to do and I did well enough to get into the Somerset Academy until I was let go at nineteen. It was a blow and for a few years I did a series of jobs that went nowhere – I ran a nightclub for a year, which was fun, but estate agency was the final straw. I hated it.

‘My stepfather was a jeweller in Dorchester and I kept asking him questions about things, especially clocks, until he couldn’t answer any more. That was when I decided to get an apprenticeship and I’ve not looked back since. What I love about it is there’s no pressure – the biggest mistake you can make in horology is to rush. Rushing never saves time it only ever means the job takes longer. It’s far better to take your time and do it properly in the first place.’

Last year Simon’s business merged with the Clock Work Shop, founded in 1996, which moved from Winchester to Abbotsbury three years ago this month (OCTOBER). He works with business partners Richard Scorey who takes care of the Winchester shop, and Kevin Hurd, who is in Abbotsbury once a week, giving Simon time to make house calls. Horologist Tom Hannagan and apprentice Jess Yarham-Baker complete the team.

‘I think there’s a certain type of person who’s into clocks,’ says Simon. ‘They seem to have time to appreciate things and will take time to share stories. These clocks will be around for years to come so I can certainly see a future for this trade regardless of how technology evolves. That has always happened – when did you last read a sundial?

‘In many ways antique clocks are closer to the art market – they hold their value and make very sound investments. The best makers all numbered their pieces and often signed them so there’s a real sense of history with each piece.’

Jess Yarham-Baker, Simon Allen, Tom Hannagan aka the Abbotsbury Time Team. Photo Emma Moore

The earliest clocks were typically made for the wealthy by blacksmiths and up until the invention of the pendulum in the second half of the seventeenth century would have only had hour hands. Within fifty years or so the mercury pendulum countered the tendency for pendulum rods to vary in length and speed with changes in temperature, enabling more consistently accurate timekeeping and minute hands were added.

The workings are based on a number of mechanical gear trains – the more trains the more complex the clock – and the constant movement of brass wheels on steel pinions produces wear and tear that culminates in the need to repair.

‘When you think of the conditions in which these were made – dusty workshops with low light and temperatures up and down – it is a fantastic privilege to keep them going. Most of what we see is quite high end, but two or three hundred years ago every small town had a clockmaker and there were a lot of them about – you can still pick up long case clocks at auction for a couple of hundred pounds that can be brought back to life.’

Then, perhaps with an eye on future workload, Simon sounds a note of caution: ‘Just one thing – WD40 does many things very well, but not clocks. It stops clocks, it’s an abrasive.’

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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