Jeremy Flint goes inside Blenheim Palace to meet Julian Newman, the man tasked with looking after the dozens of historic clocks and timepieces there
Words and photos by Jeremy Flint
Blenheim Palace is an iconic landmark in the heart of Oxfordshire and one of the UK’s most magnificent stately homes. Located in Woodstock, this fantastic Baroque building stands beside enchanting lakes and wonderful gardens set within a beautifully landscaped parkland created by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the most famous garden designer of the 18th century.
The palace has been the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough since Queen Anne gifted it to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, as a reward for his victory over the French at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
The palace was also the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill in 1874, and a tour of the house includes a look around the bedroom where the wartime prime minister was born. With a fascinating story that stretches back centuries, Blenheim is also the only non-royal country house in England to hold the title of palace, and, with 187 grand rooms, is one of the largest houses in the whole country.
Before Greenwich Mean Time became universally adopted in 1884, the Blenheim estate kept its own time under the 4th Duke of Marlborough, known as ‘Blenheim Time’, which was calculated using a sundial and the longitude of the palace and would have been around five-and-a-half minutes slower than GMT. The 4th Duke of Marlborough reportedly used a telescope given to him by his close friend King George III to determine and keep the time.
Today Blenheim adheres, like everyone else, to GMT and for the past 18 years, Julian Newman has been tasked with carrying out weekly winding and time-checking duties on each of the 30 clocks (and counting), as well as changing them by an hour each spring and autumn in keeping with British Summer Time. He is also responsible for looking after the 18th-century East Courtyard Clock Tower, which is twice as old as Big Ben’s clock.
To this end, Julian winds the clocks at least twice a week and he is now attuned to their peculiarities. “One of the clocks you don’t have to wind for three weeks, some you need to do every three days,” he says. “It all depends on what the mechanism is inside them.”
It all sounds rather fun, and the clocks seem to have minds of their own in terms of when they go off: “Some will chime on the hour, some won’t chime at all, and others will do a quarter past and a quarter to, so every 15 minutes you will get a tune out of them,” Julian says.
Julian carries a board holding the clock keys with him as he works his way around the palace, which is the same one that has been used since the 1940s. He takes his role very seriously, though it is not without its distractions.
“I like to do the clock timekeeping checks first thing in the morning before the palace is open,” he says, ‘‘…I can get asked lots of questions by the public who are so intrigued and excited with seeing something behind the scenes.
“I don’t mind this, but it can take twice as long as it should do if I mess up my timings.” As well as his timekeeping duties, Julian helps set up events at Blenheim Palace, from jousting tournaments to concerts and weddings, so his time tracking is essential to ensuring everything at Blenheim runs like clockwork, though he relies on another safe pair of hands to ensure the clocks are in good working order.
“John Philips has been looking after our clocks for around 60 years,” Julian says. “He knows every single inside part of the clock. He will take it apart, remove all the small screws and the coils and know exactly where they need to go back. He will take them away and do all the intricate repair and restoration work.”
Of course, sometimes things do go wrong, such as in the case of the two grandfather clocks that line the red carpet within the Great Hall. “They wound the same time every day, every week…but suddenly for some bizarre reason they stopped working at exactly the same time on the same day,” Julian reveals.
So, what happened? Did the two clocks have some telepathic connection? Were there gremlins at work? It turns out it was nothing more than the build up of dust, created by the thousands of people walking the carpets every year, getting into the mechanisms.
“Now, we dust the insides more frequently, so it doesn’t happen again,” Julian says. On another occasion, an important discovery was made when the middle clock in the third stateroom was loaned to an American museum for an exhibition.
“As the clock was put in place, the original key that wound it up was found in the void with its ball clock label,” Julian says. “The key had probably been down there for a good 50 years without anyone knowing it was there.
Finding the clock’s time key kept it going again.” Blenheim Time appears to have been largely down to the 4th Duke’s obsession with punctuality.
Julian says: “The concept of Blenheim Time started as the old Duke was particular about waking up at a certain time and everyone being in the right place at the right time.”
With the grand clock in the Great Hall acting as the regulator against which all the other clocks in the palace were set, the Duke could be confident all his servants were doing their jobs on time, though 150 years ago when the regulator clock broke, it was tricky getting it running again.
“Staff would have changed the clock using a big stick with a leather end to move the hands around,” Julian says.
“Over time, this was eroding the hands of the clock face and so this stopped. Now, I use a feather duster on the end of a stick to put it right whilst balancing precariously on a step ladder.”
Of all the clocks in Blenheim Palace, Julian’s favourite is the grandfather clock in the Great Hall. “It chimes every 15 minutes, and you can actually see the weights go up and down. Nothing is hidden away, it’s all there to look at, it’s great,” he says, describing how as the pendulum clicks along, the weight moves and takes the hands around with it. The same happens again when it chimes. “The components all work together; you can’t have one without the other,” he adds.
This is an extract, read the full feature in our August/September 2023 issue of Discover Britain, available to buy here.