17 January 2016
Commando was especially imaginative in the Christmas present department this year and one in particular was something I had to wait to appreciate. Sunday was the day I finally could. It was a two person gift and, as Commando was on a long Sunday run, CJ came along to share the fun. The only dampener on the excitement was the weather. After two beautiful blue sky days I had high hopes but Sunday morning dawned wet and grey.
Despite the grizzly day, we set off in good spirits. We were earlier than expected and even had time for a few quick pictures before we went inside. This was the first time I’d taken notice of the beautiful decorative lampposts flanking the door of Sea City Museum. They have what look like dolphins at the base and on the top Lady Justice with sword and scales, a remnant from the days when this was the law court and police station.
The clock tower really captured our attention though. A while ago exclusive tours were advertised but they sold out too quickly for me. Clever Commando discovered there were more in January and booked two tickets for my surprise Christmas Present. He’s a genius sometimes.
“Just think, we’ll be standing at the top in a while,” I said, “it suddenly looks very high. I hope I won’t keel over half way up.”
“Don’t worry Mum, I’m sure I’ll be able to climb over you if you do,” CJ laughed.
We were the first to arrive so there was a bit of waiting around and chatting with the tour leader before everyone else turned up. This gave us time to admire the beautiful Art Deco building and see and hear the spitfire going round on the display screen. Our tour leader, who I shall call Fred for the purposes of anonimity, told us the circular blue dome above us was directly below the clock. Sadly, the last person arrived at that moment so I didn’t have a chance to take a proper picture of it.
First there was a safety briefing. Fred checked we were all fit enough to climb and were wearing sensible footwear. The latter was easy, I only own sensible footwear, the former was a bit of a worry. Was I really fit enough to climb over two hundred stairs? We would soon see because Fred opened a rather ordinary looking door and the first steps were in front of us.
The wrought iron stairway, Fred explained, was the one part of the building that wasn’t in the Art Deco style. He wasn’t sure why but they had chosen to use Art Nouveau stairs. They were a little dusty, as you’d expect from a part of the building that isn’t meant for the eyes of the general public, but quite beautiful. The first set of stairs ended abruptly and we found ourselves in the drizzle on the roof of the building. It seemed strange to be looking at something so familiar from such a different vantage point.
Another door took us to the clock tower proper. The small room was dominated by an identical spiral staircase winding its way upwards through a hole in the ceiling. We’d reached stage one and I was hardly out of breath. We all had a little rest while Fred told us a little of the history of the building. He explained how the various civic departments had once been scattered all over the city. This was not ideal and debate about where and how to house the borough offices raged for more than forty years until, in 1924, the first real proposal was made by alderman Sidney Kimber. Objections followed. Some people didn’t like the location, or the size. In the end a competition was held for architects to submit their designs. Earnest Barry Webber’s design was finally chosen and, four years later, the land was earmarked.
While we looked about the room Fred told us how the four blocks of the building were all built as seperate entities then interconnected to create one building. The south wing was completed first, containing the civic centre and council offices. The foundation stone was laid in 1930 by Prince Albert, Duke of York. He also opened the building in November 1932. The west wing, where we were, was next, opened in 1933 by Viscount Sankey, the Lord Chancellor. Fred pointed out the rivets on the girders supporting the inside of the tower and explained how skilled men from the shipbuilding industry had been involved in the construction.
On the next level we found the rows of coloured bulbs that light the tower at Christmas and on special occasions and looked out of the long thin windows. We were still relatively low and the rain didn’t make for the best view but it was interesting to see the BBC Studio below and the inside courtyard of the civic centre itself. I wondered if I’d be able to see my village when we got to the top and wished the blue sky had lasted just one more day.
Curiously, there was never meant to be a clock tower but alderman Kimber and Earnest Barry Webber got together and managed to squeeze it in somehow. Apparently a balloon was tied on the proposed site to ensure it would be visible from various points in the city. It worked well because it can be seen for many miles, even from the top of my Big Hill on a clear day. After it was built the tower was known as Kimber’s Chimney. Of course this didn’t help keep things on budget but I think most people would agree it was worth it.
Like the rest of the building, the tower is built of Portland Stone. Fred explained how wooden beams had been laid and concrete poured over them to create the ceilings. When the beams were removed the pattern of the wood remained giving them the appearance of floorboards. Feeling rested, we climbed the next flight of stairs.
Although there were only seven of us, plus Fred and his assistant, who brought up the rear with a rather worrying first aid kit, it felt crowded in the small tower rooms. As it goes up the tower narrows so this could only get get worse. Somehow I managed to get to a window looking out over the roof of the new Sea City Museum building and West Park where I could see the enclosure sculpture. The park looked wet and, in the distance, the trees of the Common and, beyond, Chilworth, were shrouded by misty dampness.
On the other side of the room CJ was looking through the opposite window.
“You can open them if you like,” Fred said, so CJ did and I sneaked round to take advantage. This window looked over the busy civic centre junction. Along Portland Terrace I could make out the WestQuay bridge and the tower block on Castle Way. Behind it I could just about see the spire of St Michael’s Church.
On the next floor Fred talked about the Southampton blitz and how the Luftwaffe had left the clock tower alone, probably because, like the spire of St Michael’s Church, it was a useful navigation aid. The same could not be said for the rest of the civic centre. On 6 November 1940, a group of school children were having an afternoon lesson in the Art Gallery building. When the sirens sounded they went into the air raid shelter in the basement as they’d been told. Twelve bombs fell that afternoon, one directly on the art school. It fell through the roof and inner floors and exploded inside the basement where the poor children were hiding. Over thirty people were killed by this one bomb, fourteen of them the children in the shelter. Miraculously, one child survived.
It was certainly food for thought on our climb to the next floor. Here CJ opened the window facing our village and we both peered out looking for landmarks. Below we could see the copper roof of the guildhall and, almost dead ahead, the gasometer at Northam. As for our village it was just a distant dark green haze.
We continued climbing and stopping with the space getting ever tighter until I’d completely lost count of how many floors we’d passed. Then, at the top of the next set of stairs, I saw something that told me we were nearly at the top. There was the famous clock face. This was the thing I’d been most interested to see.
We all crowded into the tiny room which was all but filled already by another room containing the workings of the clock. Peeking through the glass I’d hoped to see cogs and springs but there was just a rather ordinary looking clock face. This little clock, made by Gillett and Johnston of Croydon and called the master clock, works the four clock faces of the tower. They are illuminated by lights using a light cell, meaning the clock is always backlit when light levels are low.
This was where the tour usually stopped, Fred explained. Above was one more room containing the bell tower. Normally this chimes the verse of the hymn O God, Our Help In Ages Past, written by Sotonian Isaac Watts, every four hours and, between times, chimes the hours. Tours are arranged to avoid anyone being at the top of the tower when this happens for obvious reasons. It was now six minutes past twelve and there had been no chimes. There was a problem with the mechanism. Fred pointed to an odd contraption in the corner, “that is a silencer for the bells,” he said, “we think it may be stuck.”
For us this was good news. It meant we could go up into the bell tower. Interested as I was in seeing the bells, I hung back while the others climbed and took a few unimpeded shots of the clock face. Then I too climbed the last cramped set of stairs into the darkness.
This was the smallest room of all. I couldn’t help looking at those poised hammers a little nervously and thinking of poor Quasimodo. A set of bright blue ear defenders hung on a pole in the corner and I wondered if I should grab them just in case. With the metal slats and grilles letting in a little light, the room was open to the elements. Chill, damp air swirled around us and water dripped.
There are nine bells in the tower, hung in a steel frame. The largest, called Solent Chimes, rings the hours. The quarter hours are chimed by four of the smaller bells. All are operated by a motor, connected to the clock mechanism. As it was now approaching the quarter hour I was grateful this wasn’t working. Fred pointed out a faint inscription on the large bell and, nearby, a plaque with the wording.
Finally, Fred opened a tiny hatch in the metal grille and we got our highest view yet. By chance this was over Northam towards our village. If only the weather had been better. We’d made it up all two hundred and fifteen stairs without me having a heart attack. Now it was time to descend.
In the end, the going down was hardest. Round and round the spiral we went and I got dizzier and dizzier. CJ found a makers mark on one of the steps and I was thankful to stop for a moment to look at it. Then, with one final look at one of the floodlights that illuminate the tower at night, we were back on the ground and our tour was over.
As Christmas presents go, this was certainly one of Commando’s better ideas. Now I’ve been inside I don’t think I shall ever look at the clock tower in the same way again.