Up the City of London

Brian Coleman returns to the City of London

The last time I wrote a column referring to the Corporation of the City of London, Ken Livingstone described me as behaving like a "demented Trot" in calling for its abolition - which, incidentally I was not.

Meanwhile a hard copy of my blog was pinned up on the notice board of the Members room at the Guildhall. I suspect the first time many Alderman and Common Councillors had read anything in the New Statesman.

Although one Common Councilman was very rude to me (and you know who you are Mr Deputy), I was amazed at the number of sensible and well informed members of the Corporation who sidled up to me and remarked that I had raised some interesting points.

Well, the other night the Great and the Good of London Government duly donned their dinner jackets and enjoyed the Lord Mayor’s hospitality at the Annual Government of London Dinner.

To the general astonishment of most, Ken Livingstone wore the regulation Black Tie (is there an election on?) and the number of guests who I spotted in a lounge suit could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The lord mayor actually made a good speech, mainly because he expressed the sentiments that we politicians were thinking, that London and its issues as a capital city are not understood by this government.

And, once again, it has been stuffed on the Local Government Finance settlement.

Ken Livingstone’s response was, sadly, rather long and rambling and, unlike Ken’s normal after dinner style, devoid of jokes, which was probably why one Common Councilman on the top table was sound asleep and at least one London Borough Mayor was nodding off.

Most guests amused themselves by reading the printed copy of the detailed table plan. During his speech Ken could not resist his current obsession of attacking the London Evening Standard which he described as the London Evening Johnson to a murmur of disapproval.

The best speech of the evening was undoubtedly by Councillor Merrick Cockell. He's the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (and with a name like that he was born to be leader of a Royal Borough!) and Chairman of London Councils.

Letting Merrick speak was a nod from the City that we have London mayoral and assembly elections this year and they had better have a bit of political balance.

After paying tribute to the Corporation and the chairman of its policy and resources committee, the still unknighted Michael Snyder, Merrick - on behalf of all the London Boroughs pleaded for much closer cooperation with the mayor of London - post the elections in May. Probably the one overwhelming theme of Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty has been the constant state of war between him and the London Boroughs whatever their political colour.

The following morning I was again in the City of London attending the City New Year Service at St Michael Cornhill presided over by the redoubtable rector, the Reverend Dr Peter Mullen, who preached a sermon before a selection of liverymen and City worthies that restored one's faith in the Church of England.

Condemning most things liberal and the wishy washeyness of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Mullen suggested that global warming was a pagan myth and the answer to all life’s problems was a firm and robust Christian faith.

In times gone by the rector would have made a wonderful archdeacon but, in these politically correct days, has as much chance of advancement in the Anglican communion as I do of getting positive coverage in the Guardian. The service ended with a robust singing of three verses of the National Anthem including the great line "Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks".

The City of London remains a defender of those traditions and beliefs that made our country great and over the centuries has confounded and frustrated generations of politicians: long may it be so!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.