Tag Archives: westnorwood

WeNo insiders guide to…The Clockworks

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.

 

 

 

The Clock­works

6 Net­tle­fold Place,

Lon­don SE27 OJW

Tel 020 86764856 

http://theclockworks.org