Wells Cathedral, Somerset, UK, contains a unique clock. It is one of the oldest mechanical clocks still in existence in the world. Although the mechanism has been replaced, the inside clock face is original, dating from 1390. Other parts of the clock were added over the centuries.
The clock consists of three parts, the inside clock face, the outside clock face and the figure of Jack Blandifer. These are described in the following sections.
The Inside Clock Face
This is found inside the Cathedral, on the west wall of the North Transept. The most notable feature is at the top: four figures of men on horseback, two knights and two Saracens, go around in a circle in a jousting tournament. One poor Saracen is knocked down on every turn, a fate he has suffered on a regular basis since 1390. Originally, the horsemen jousted every hour, but the crowds of people gathering to see the show became so large that the mechanism was altered. Now the tournament takes place for a shorter time every 15 minutes.
The dial of the clock itself is unusual and not like a modern clock. There are three concentric rings of numbers. The outermost is marked in Roman numerals showing the 24 hours of the day. 12 noon is at the top and 12 midnight is at the bottom. A golden sun moves around the dial to show the hour of the day. The second ring gives the minutes written in Arabic numerals, with 60 at the top as in a normal clock. A silver star points to the current minute. The innermost ring, again in Arabic numerals, shows the number of days since the last full moon. A small moon points to the number. Within the central ring is a circular hole through which is shown the current phase of the moon.
The Outside Clock Face
The other face of the clock is on the outside of the Cathedral, on the North wall. It dates from the 15th Century. Originally this had a dial marked in 24 hours with a single hand, but this was replaced in the 19th Century with a modern 12-hour dial with two hands. There are two knights in armour who each strike a bell with an axe to mark the quarter hour. The mechanism is also linked to a bell in the Cathedral's main tower to strike the hours, so that the time can be heard throughout the city of Wells.
High on the wall above and to the right of the inside clock face is a seated wooden figure known as Jack Blandifer. He holds a bell and a hammer. On the hour he strikes the bell with the hammer a number of times to indicate the hour. He turns his head as he does so, to listen to the sound. He also strikes two bells with his heels to indicate the quarter hours (two strikes for a quarter past, four for half past and so on). The mechanism for moving Jack Blandifer is as old as the original clock, but the present figure is more recent. He was replaced in the 17th Century.
The Clock Mechanism
The original mechanism of the clock was wildly inaccurate by modern standards, losing or gaining up to 15 minutes per day. It was removed in the 17th Century and ended up in The Science Museum in London, where it can still be seen. It was replaced with a sequence of more reliable pendulum-controlled mechanisms, the latest in 1880.
A Visit to the Clock
Everybody is welcome to visit Wells Cathedral. Because it is a place of worship, you are expected to act soberly and quietly. Access may be restricted during services. The clock puts on its show every quarter hour. In the summer, quite a crowd can gather in front of the clock. A clergyman may take the opportunity to say a few words to the crowd and a short prayer after the clock chimes. Listen politely - he won't keep you long. While you're in the Cathedral, take the opportunity to see the other wonderful features such as the scissors arches, the stained glass windows, the octagonal chapter house and even the beautiful modern tall chairs on the main altar. The Cathedral is more fully described in the entry on Wells.
There is no admission fee, but for those who can afford it, at the time of writing a donation of £4 is encouraged, to help towards the upkeep of this magnificent building.
As you leave the Cathedral, don't forget to go around to the right to see the outside clock face and the axe-wielding knights.