Introducing B’s Balloons, West Norwood’s very own balloon and party suppliers, nestled on the corner of Bloom Grove opposite the cemetery. Our intrepid FEAST reporter stepped through the cheery bright-pink door to talk balloons with owner Bev and business partner Julie.
The first question had to be: “How did you get into this line of business?” Bev explains how she started by decorating family parties, making a room look good by adding floral centrepieces, dressing the tables, and positioning shaped balloons. She can still recall her very first centrepiece consisting of a candle holder, floristry ribbon, gyp and a rose. In 2003 she completed a wedding decorating course and took a beginners course with NABAS (the National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers).
After the introduction to balloon work, she began using helium for displays, and it has gone from there, with Bev working for a shop in Fulham in 2008, doing the decoration for celebrations, and running her own business from home and in Croydon’s Surrey Street market. In 2010 Bev finally obtained the current premises. Being on the corner, the shop boasts two display windows – one of which Bev constantly redresses to showcase balloon creations. Bev smiles… passersby have been known to come in to compliment an arrangement or suggest it’s time for a new one! She remembers displaying a cumbersome Union Jack flag made of balloons for the Queen’s Jubilee.
It became clear as the conversation progressed that there is a whole specialist world of balloon artistry that most of us don’t know about. Julie mentioned she has been twice to the International Balloon Artistry Convention, travelling to Chicago and Belgium to join the annual showcase of balloon sculptures. At the Belgian conference, she created an Egyptian Eye of Horus in a competition. Apparently the Japanese are known for creating balloon dresses… Julie swivelled the computer screen to show our intrigued reporter – you have to Google it! Bev comments “Julie excels at twisting” and they flipped open an industry magazine, Balloon Images, to demonstrate the type of creations demanding twisting. Bev has also made fantasy flowers just out of balloon latex. The day-to-day running of the business keeps Bev busy for long hours… particularly when they are decorating for a function – so much so that the next module of her Certified Balloon Artistry course is on the back burner, but Julie has completed the extensive training.
So, what has been the most memorable order? Bev pauses… 2,000 balloons for a film set about three years ago. The shoot was in Dulwich so she hired a van to deliver the balloons. It took six hours for two of them to hand-tie each balloon with a ribbon! Bev has also provided decorations to Stella McCartney… she thought it was a prank call until she was given the address. Generally, the most common, large, special occasion orders are for arches or columns of balloons.
Aside from balloons, the shop sells the other items you might need for a celebration. You can order personalised banners, and buy cards, children’s birthday party ware, confetti, and party blowers. Bev offers children’s birthday packages that can be themed, including cake, favours, cups and plates. The shop also has a license to sell fireworks, which are kept under lock and key. These are popular four times a year: Diwali, bonfire night, Christmas and New Year.
The most enjoyable part of the job? For Bev it is still the satisfaction of transforming a room for someone’s wedding or a christening. This is the event-decorating part of the business – dressing a whole room with flowers, chair covers, table linen and crockery. They do on average three christenings a month plus weddings, which are more seasonal. In addition, the proximity to the cemetery isn’t that incongruent because Bev and Julie decorate for funerals too. The functions can make for a long day. For a Saturday event they can be up into the early hours preparing. Bev comments the most recent wedding was in Croydon on a Sunday, and they started at 9.30 by dressing the Church with flowers and delivering the bridal arrangements. Unusually they had to cover all the chairs because the pews had been removed for refurbishment. Next they decorated the reception venue consisting of 14 tables and a head table. The work day lasted until 11.30pm when all the guests had gone and they could pack down.
Throughout the interview there was a steady trickle of customers: a woman needing large foil “9” and “0” balloons for her mum’s 90th, which she was going to drive inflated to Cornwall; a young dad looking for a 1st birthday balloon; phone calls about functions; and someone collecting 20 helium balloons.
Bev comments how the quality of the balloon latex is important – it’s cheap online and the balloons don’t last, which can ruin an event. “You learn some tricks from years of experience”, Julie divulges. “In hot weather, don’t inflate to the full, as the balloons expand outside in the heat – they will all pop if you don’t know that!” There’s disappointing news for some of us… inhaling helium to entertain your friends with a squeaky cartoon voice is bad for you – if you take too big a breath, it deprives the brain of oxygen… now you know!
So any future plans for B’s Balloons? Bev responds without missing a beat – hopefully more corporate events and bigger premises to work in so they can create grander displays.
388 Norwood Road
Mon–Fri 10 to 5.30pm (closed Wednesday) and Sat 9 to 6pm
In Nettlefold Place near Cenci Vintage, featured previously in this blog, there is an unassuming door marked number 6 and signed The Clockworks. The converted Victorian industrial building, with on-trend grey paintwork, could be mistaken for the offices of an architect’s practice or media company. Instead, behind the entrance door there lies a nationally unique clock collection and a state-of-the-art clock and watch repair workshop. Visitors and customers are welcome by appointment.
Entering by buzzer, our Intrepid FEAST reporter walked into a meticulously designed open-plan interior. It’s a large, atmospheric space, carefully zoned to reflect the different functions of the organisation: museum collection, library, workshop and charity. The clocks, dating from 1840, are an immediate visual pull and it’s hard not to be mesmerised by the rhythmic ticking and clicking of the timepieces. Behind a raised counter, in the corner, is the workshop domain of the freelance conservators. This area contains the paraphernalia of clock and watch repairing: a metal and wood lathe, brazing hearth for soldiering, milling machine with 5 microns accuracy (1000th of a mm!), a parts cleaning zone and a central desk with the most recent repair project carefully laid out.
So how has this incredible collection ended up in West Norwood? Well, The Clockworks are the brainchild of Dr James Nye and reflect a lifelong passion for horology (and within that field, the even more niche area of electric clocks). James’s interest developed as a schoolboy when he was given responsibility for looking after his school’s clock system. He explains: “Electric clocks enable the distribution of time at a distance, allowing you to have the same time in different places. They tend to be institutional.” James first began collecting clocks in the late 1970s. By the time he moved to West Norwood with his wife and children, he needed to create a purpose-built space to accommodate what had become a substantial personal collection. Initially he refurbished a derelict house in Chestnut Road in 2001, creating a family home with a large portion of the ground floor hived off for the clocks. Visitors accessed the collection via the family’s front door. Even with this arrangement, a large proportion of the clocks had to be kept in storage. Back then, when a private collector died, their collection was invariably sold off and dispersed. Aware of this, James harboured the ambition to create a dedicated premises open to the public. It was on the backburner for a long time. But in 2012 he stumbled across the opportunity he was looking for via a neighbour who worked in property development. He was able to buy the ground floor of the current premises in Nettlefold Place. At that time, it was a shell being redeveloped into flats and it became a labour of love to transform it into The Clockworks. The low point? “Waiting 7 months to get a gas connection.”
As James needed staff to maintain the clocks, it was logical to construct a workshop area. This also met a need in the horology community. Talented graduates were emerging from conservation courses with amazing skills, but they were struggling to establish a workshop due to a lack of capital. James had the idea of offering bench space on a freelance basis with an agreement to work some days on the collection. It is how he was introduced to Johan ten Hoeve, a second generation Dutch clockmaker. Johan had recently finished training at West Dean College with the accolade of a renowned horology project under his belt. (He had created a replica of a 1676 clock made for the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, that had been installed in the space built for the original.) Johan became involved in the development of the Clockworks and is now Conservator-in-Residence. This brought James on to one of the highpoint of The Clockworks to date… In 2014, Johan was approached by the Kunozan-Toshogu Shrine in Japan to conserve a 16th-century clock that had been gifted to the Shogun in 1611 by the Viceroy of New Spain. Johan spent an initial 8-day trip in an office at the shrine, working at a big desk with a Japanese flag behind it, with the constant company of his hosts, where he cleaned the original clock, took photos and made drawings. The shrine authorities had bought everything they could from his tool kit shopping list. Next, Johan created a working replica of the internal movement so it could be displayed by the clock for visitors to see. This part of the project was done in West Norwood and was finally completed in September 2015. Johan flew back to Japan with his replica to attend the huge publicity launch. So, a high prestige project in the world of clocks and it took place in West Norwood!
Given its quiet profile locally, it’s easy to assume nobody knows about the collection, but one look at the visitors’ book reveals a steady stream of guests – not all niche electric clock enthusiasts. James estimates they have about 1000 visitors a year, mostly as tour groups, who are treated to an informed guided tour of the collection. Secret London Walks have made about 8 separate visits because the trip is so over subscribed. Then there has been friends of the V&A, National Trust membership tours, and the London Explorers Group to name but a few. Of course there are clock aficionados, including specialists from overseas. Smiths of Derby, clockmakers since 1856, have made staff trips – presumably thrilled to see the historic Smiths clocks on display. And local families with older children have visited during the school holidays. Since 2014, the Clockworks have also been taking part in the annual London Open House, normally opening on the same day as the cemetery and South London Theatre. If you are a film buff, watch out for screenings in the space during the Free Film Festival.
More recently, The Clockworks gained higher profile in the area when James was involved in the £35,000 fundraising campaign to repair St Luke’s tower clock. James comments: “It is a nationally significant clock made in 1827 by the famous clockmaker Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy” (who at the time was clockmaker to George IV). The clock hadn’t been working for about 10 years, permanently stuck at 12 o’clock. In May 2016, with the money raised, the clock was restored by the Cumbria Clock Company. So now the people of West Norwood have no excuse for being late!
And how about the workshop? Well, it is busy, with more work than they can fulfil. Many customers are local people, often private individuals with heirloom clocks, mainly mechanical, that have ceased to work. The conservators develop their own clientele based on their expertise. Johan, not surprisingly, specialises in clocks and often does site visits. They tend to generate business word of mouth. Our reporter talked to James Harris, who specialises in watches. He graduated from Birmingham City University with a BA in horology and has worked for Omega. A lot of the watches James Harris repairs are vintage; some are antique. He explains: “Vintage watches are very fashionable at present – you can get a brand such as Omega for a few hundred rather than the new price which can be £1000.”
Then it was time for the tour of the collection given by conservator James Harris – and it was truly fascinating. It was hard not to appreciate the engineering or be dazzled by the ideas behind measuring time and distributing time in factories, on ships, to the top of church towers.
What a treasure nestling in West Norwood! It’s well worth booking a visit, and if you have an old clock or watch to repair, there is a team of incredible experts on your doorstep.
6 Nettlefold Place,
London SE27 OJW
Tel 020 86764856