Big Ben: we meet the Clockmaker at the Palace of Westminster
In the coming weeks, artist Lucy Sparrow is making mini versions of London’s iconic buildings out of felt. Our new Ministructures series, in which we interview Londoners with a connection to the big buildings of the capital, kicks off with Big Ben and Big Ben’s caretaker Paul Roberson, photographed holding ‘Little Ben’.
Paul Roberson, 53, Clockmaker at the Palace of Westminster, Chairman of the British Watch & Clock Makers Guild
What makes you tick?
‘When I was young I wanted to be a motorcycle mechanic – I’m always playing around with anything mechanical. I’ve just finished restoring a classic jukebox. I do like my music. My favourite artist is Galia Arad – you can Google her.’
Looking after Big Ben must be pretty awesome…
‘When you’re up there it’s a strange feeling. It can be quite lonely – it’s just you, a colleague and the clock. But then you look down at the crowds and realise it’s a real responsibility. It’s cool. I started work in a basement in east London – if someone had told me that one day I’d be working on the most famous clock in the world, I wouldn’t have believed them.’
Is it a round-the-clock-job?
‘When you’re on call, you always have to be within an hour and a half of the palace. There are two of us on call all the time.’
In case it stops?
‘It’s never stopped since I’ve been here.’
‘Though occasionally the chime might stop playing. It’s rare, but it can happen. In the ’50s the clock stopped when a flock of starlings landed on the minute hand.’
Tell us something we don’t know about Big Ben.
‘We keep it running with a stack of old pennies. The clock has a pendulum that swings every two seconds. Adding a penny speeds it up by 2/5 of a second, removing a penny slows it.’
What do you think of our model?
‘It’s cute. Let me know if you’re ever getting rid of it.’
You collect cuddly Big Bens?
‘No, but in my garden I’ve got a five-foot concrete model of the clocktower. The dials light up at night.’
Isn’t that a bit weird?
‘I suppose when you work on Big Ben it gets under your skin a little. I still get a buzz when I go up there.’
Do your family think your job’s cool?
‘They don’t like clocks as much as I do.’
Why do people love Big Ben so much?
‘I’ve no idea. It’s no longer got the biggest face, dial or bell, but it’s the most famous clock the world over. It’s got a place in people’s hearts.’
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Check out Lucy Sparrow’s latest creations in felt at sewyoursoul.co.uk.