EGLOSHAYLE IS ACROSS the Camel river, facing the Cornish town of Wadebridge. The Earl of St Vincent pub is hidden away up a hill behind Egloshayle’s St Petroc church. It is housed in a building built in the 17th century as a boarding house for masons. Later, it became a pub. One of its many guests was Admiral Sir John Jervis (1735-1823).
The interior of the pub has timber roof beams and a delightful feeling of times long gone by. It is a great example of many people’s idealised vision of a typical ‘olde worlde English’ country pub. Soon after entering the dimly lit establishment, and your eyes adjust to the low light levels, it becomes evident that the pub is full of clocks, mostly differing in design. Most of them appear to be in working order, but not many of them show the same time. A great number of the clocks chime at least once an hour, but not all at the same time. This being the case, there is usually at least one clock chiming at any given moment. This produces a lovely background symphony of chimes.
I asked one of the pub’s staff why there were so many clocks in the pub. She replied:
“Some people like children. We like clocks”
Later, I asked the landlady about the clocks. She told me that when they took over the pub some years ago, there was no clock in it. She and her husband bought one clock for the pub, and this became the start of their collection. They could not stop buying timepieces. She told me that there are over 200 clocks in the pub and winding them up every day is quite a huge task.
Apart from the fascinating clocks, the pub can be recommended for the delicious, excellently prepared, unpretentious food that can be eaten there.
KENWOOD HOUSE IS NEAR both Hampstead and Highgate in north London. It offers the visitor the chance to view not only its lovely grounds and fine interiors designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), but also a fabulous collection of paintings, many by world famous artists including, to mention but a few, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Van Dyck, Vermeer, Reynolds, and Gainsborough.
One of the paintings by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) is a portrait of the inventor John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803). The latter was born in Huy (Belgium), and as a young man, he worked in Paris making clocks and mathematical instruments. In 1760, he moved to England to work as a technical advisor to the then new Spanish Ambassador to London. By 1766, he was working with the London jeweller James Cox. Then, he was creating mechanical toys including the Silver Swan, an automaton, still working, that can be seen at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle (Durham).
In addition to these ‘toys’, Merlin invented some useful items. These included roller skates; various clocks including one that was powered by changes in atmospheric pressure; improvements to keyboard musical instruments; playing cards for blind people; prosthetic devices; and a self-propelled wheelchair known as ‘the Gouty Chair’. There is an example of this ingenious wheelchair on display beneath Merlin’s portrait in Kenwood House. In my book about Hampstead and its environs, I described it as follows: “Two handles at the ends of its armrests are connected by rods and cogwheels to some wheels on the floor below the chair. The occupant of this chair could rotate the handles, and thereby propel this early form of wheelchair around the room.”
In the same room as the invalid’s chair, there is another of Merlin’s creations: a skeleton clock made by him in 1776. This kind of timepiece is one, whose working parts are not concealed by casing or any other features that usually hide them.
The portrait of Merlin, painted in 1781 by his friend Gainsborough, shows him in a red jacket, holding a small beam balance in his left hand. Apparently, this was one of his creations. This precision instrument is the only clue that the subject of the painting had anything to do with jewellery or instrument making. His right hand is tucked into his jacket:
ST JOHNS CHURCH in Hampstead’s Church Row lies 0.1811 degrees west of the Greenwich Meridian. Its longitude is 0.1811 W. This fact is unimportant to most people living in the area because Hampstead is high above sea level. However, an accurate measurement of longitude (and latitude) is extremely important to seafarers.
I am no expert in navigation, so please excuse me if the following explanation seems oversimplified. Latitude can be assessed measuring the positions of fixed astronomical objects such as the sun and the North Star and relating them to the horizon. Longitude proved far harder to measure because it involves relating the local time to the time at a reference position, now at the commonly accepted Greenwich Meridian. The difference in the time at a position in the sea and that at Greenwich is the way that the calculation of longitude is made. Local time can be measured by means such as observing where the sun appears in the sky. Until the 18th century, no clocks existed that could reliably record the time at the reference position whilst at sea. The uncertainty involved in assessing longitude resulted in many unfortunate disasters at sea. In 1714, the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act of 1714, which offered prizes for a simple and practical method of assessing longitude out at sea.
To solve the problem, a clock that accurately recorded the time at Greenwich was required. This clock had to remain accurate despite the many changes that it would encounter as it moved across the seas. It had to record Greenwich Mean Time accurately and reliably despite changes in temperature, humidity, air pressure, motion of the vessel, and so on. Major advances in the solution of this demanding technical problem were made by a carpenter and clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776), who was born near Wakefield in Yorkshire. For over 40 years, he worked on the problem, producing ever more reliable chronometers, which were tested at sea. Eventually, his H4 design became the prototype for what was best suited to the job. With the help of his son William Harrison (1728-1815), Harrison was rewarded with much of the financial reward offered in the wording of the Act passed in 1714.
When he died, John Harrison was living at his home in Red Lion Square in Holborn, whose longitude is 0.1186 W. He is buried in the same churchyard as the great artist John Constable: in the cemetery next to St Johns Church in Church Row, Hampstead. His tomb, which close to the south wall of the church, is of Portland stone and decorated with pilasters in the style of the architect Robert Adam. The north side of this shoebox shaped monument has an inscription that gives a brief biography of John Harrison. His wife, Elizabeth, who died in 1777, aged 72, is also commemorated on this tomb. The south side gives a short biography of his son William, who is also buried here. In addition to helping his father test his chronometer, he was also a Governor of the Foundling Hospital in London and High Sheriff of Monmouthshire (in 1791).
According to Christopher Wade in his “Buried in Hampstead”, several persons, who were not resident in Hampstead were interred in the churchyard of St John. The Harrisons figure amongst these. Wade states that there is no evidence that John Harrison and his family had any connection with Hampstead. He speculates that they obtained a burial plot there because they were “… affected by the charm of this particular graveyard.”
The graveyard still retains its charm. It contains the resting places of many people, who have achieved fame in diverse fields of activity. Some of them are mentioned in my new book about Hampstead, which is available as a paperback from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92) and as a Kindle e-book.
TODAY, I WAS WALKING ALONG Mill Lane in West Hampstead when I spotted a plaque almost hidden in a doorway. It commemorated a craftsman who used to work in the building. I wondered why anyone had bothered to put up a notice to remember him.
Mill Lane connects West End Green (in West Hampstead) with Shoot Up Hill, which is a stretch of what was once the Roman Watling Street. West End Green was known as ‘Le Rudying’ (a name given to a woodland clearing) in the 14th century. By 1534, the area around the Green was known as ‘West End’. Currently, this green is a part of the district of West Hampstead. Although not so named until later, Mill Lane existed in the Middle Ages. A detailed map published in 1870 reveals that at that time, there were scarcely any buildings along it. It was not until the late 19th century that Mill Lane began to be lined with houses and shops. A pub on the lane, The Alliance, bears the date 1886, suggesting that before that time there was not sufficient local population to warrant building such a large hostelry.
It was the doorway of number 54 Mill Lane that caught my attention. Number 54 is sandwiched between AK locksmiths Ltd and Computer Clinic. Its shop front has frosted glass. It is the window of an office connected with St Johns Wood Cars, a taxi and private vehicle hire company. The commemorative plaque that I noticed is close to the doorway that gives access to a staircase that leads to the upper floors of the building.
The wording on the commemorative plate reads:
“Clifford Norman Bowler, watchmaker and jeweller, lived & worked here. 1899-1993. A Mill Lane tradesman for over 67 years.”
Well, 67 years is a long time and no doubt Clifford (1899-1993) was a well-known local. Articles published on the Internet (www.watchrepairtalk.com/topic/3184-clifford-norman-bowler-watchmaker and westhampsteadlife.com/2014/01/15/a-moment-in-time-on-mill-lane/9921 ) show that that Clifford was a remarkable member of his profession. Clifford was born in Northumberland in July 1899 and served in the Machine Gun Corps during WW1. By 1926, he was on the Electoral Register, registered as residing at 54 Mill Lane, and in 1929 he married Mabel in nearby Willesden.
He bought the shop on Mill Lane for £100 in about 1926 after leaving the army and having worked for a while with other jewellers and watch-repairers in Manchester. His shop used to be painted red and has been immortalised in a documentary film shot for Channel 4 by a local film-maker, Conrad Blakemore, who currently teaches at the City Lit college in London. His charming short film “The Watchmaker”, a working day in the life of Clifford Bowler, can be viewed on YouTube (https://youtu.be/BU2nOQwxiWw). In it, Clifford, a charming old man, explains that he left the army in 1919 and began learning watch-repairing in Manchester. Faced with a wage cut, he asked his brother, who was already living in London, to find him some premises. The shop he acquired in Mill Lane was already a watch and clock repairing business. The £100 he paid for it included much equipment required for his trade.
Clifford’s father was a professional banjo and mandolin player. Clifford and Mabel had two children. One of them, Norman Clifford Bowler (born 1932), has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by having a career in entertainment. Between 1961 and 2012, he appeared in many plays mainly on television.
Although his watch repairer father probably had nothing to do with India, Norman Clifford did forge a connection with the far-off country. In 2011, Norman Clifford recorded “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in Bristol. Incidentally, Coleridge’s remains lie in St Michael’s Church in Highgate, where my school used to attend services regularly. The recording was made by Norman Clifford to raise money for a school, The Aikiyam School, in the settlement of Auroville, which is close to the city of Pondicherry, a former French colony, in the south of India. A website (lanternmanproductions.bandcamp.com) that gives access to the recording also notes:
“After falling ill a number of years ago, Norman, as part of his recuperation began to spend time in the warmer climes of Southern India with his wife, Diane. As a result, he became directly involved with The Aikiyam School as a teacher of English and Drama. As the years have gone on, Norman spent more and more time in India, only returning to England to spend time with family and friends, and raise money for the school with poetry readings and personal appearances.”
Clifford is privileged to have met Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) and The Mother (Mirra Alfassa; 1878-1973), Aurobindo’s spiritual companion/muse, and there exists a recording (www.aurovilleradio.org/satprems-my-burning-heart-a-reading-by-norman/) in which he describes his impressions of her.
When I chanced upon the almost hidden memorial to a watch and clock repairer in Mill Lane, little did I expect to discover a connection between a somewhat non-descript shop in West Hampstead and the south Indian utopian settlement of Auroville, where we have some good friends and have visited a few times. Well, they say that ‘curiosity kills the cat’. Luckily although I am curious about what I see whilst out and about, I am not a cat.