A while back – maybe a year maybe two – I’d listened in to a radio article about the public clocks in Edinburgh and how they were all to be fully automated by the end of 2016. I wrote a flash fiction out of that listening. Then early this year I re-read the flash and thought there was a fuller story to be told, so I started in on it… only to discover how little I knew about clocks and big mechanisms. I needed to do some research.
Usually my research involves trawling the internet, but what was missing for my story was the feel and the smell and the sound of turret-clocks. There are no records for that. I needed to see for myself. I wrote to St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. I knew they had one such clock and I knew they did tours of the Cathedral, but I did not know if these tours took you inside the clock-tower. I was put in touch with David, The Beadle.
Turns out that David, The Beadle, was the Edinburgh clock-winder for the last turret-clocks before they were automated. He agreed to meet me and to answer all of my questions and to take me into the clock mechanism at St Giles.
I was excited – like a child on the night before Christmas. I was excited to meet the clock-winder and to see the clock mechanism and to see how much of my flash fiction could be saved and how much more could be added to the story through the real experience.
David, the Beadle, showed me the clock-winding process recorded on his computer screen – he’d filmed it for posterity before the process of automation had kicked in. He showed me pictures of the other turret-clocks he had been responsible for and some of the mantle-clocks he was still responsible for winding (smaller clocks and grandfather-clocks and grandmother-clocks). He told me about the clock-winder before him and how he came to take his place.
Then he took me onto the roof of St Giles, up a tight stone spiral staircase that left me breathless – both literally and figuratively. And across the roof and into the clock-tower. The inside of the clock-tower was a jigsaw of old ships’ timbers (rescued from a wreck in the Forth), dry and heavy and solid. And the mechanism – over a hundred years old and fitted up to the electricity now. And the bells – one large one to sound out the hours and two smaller ones to signal all the quarter hours.
The smell, the feel and the sound – all there in that experience. And other small details: the number of stone steps to the roof, the view from up high, the smell of the air inside the clock tower. There’s nothing to beat primary sources when gathering stuff for your writing.
And David, The Beadle, a quietly charming example of how good people can be and how generous – if only you ask nicely: ‘Just email if there’s anything you forgot to ask. Just come back if you want me to show you the clock again. If there’s anything, just get in touch.’
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