Monthly Archives: September 2015

Astronomical Clocks and the Lunar Eclipse

The theme of time continues on my journey through France when I visit the cities of Beauvais and Besancon. For it is in their ancient cathedrals that I discover two amazing accomplishments of engineering. The astronomical clocks of Lucien Auguste Verite.


DSCF5411Beauvais was heavily bombed during WWII but even before that the gothic Cathedral St Pierre had its problems. The tall choir was completed in 1272 but only 12 years later it collapsed. The funds were raised to rebuild it three centuries later but it collapsed again and the authorities eventually gave up. Today it seems to be held up by divine intervention and some huge wooden trusses which stretch from wall to wall. Inside I find the delightful and colourful astronomic clock which was built between 1865 and 1868. It stands 12m high and has 52 dials which display the time in 18 world cities, the sunrise and sunset, the position of the planets and tidal movements. Each hour, 68 automatons spring to life, telling the story of the Last Judgement.

DSCF5673Besancon, like Beauvais, was a Roman stronghold and became even more fortified by Vauban in the 17th Century. The impregnable citadel looks down over the old town, which is almost entirely surrounded by the river Daub. On a morning boat trip, I discover that it is also possible to pass beneath the citadel, on a canal through a tunnel.


DSCF5639At the foot of the citadel is Cathedral St Jean where I can visit an even older astronomical clock by Veritie. Commissioned in 1857 by Archbishop Mathieu, it took six months to design and a further two and a half years to complete. There are 30,000 mechanical parts but not all of them are working when I visit and the automatons refuse to act out their parts. Only Jesus on the cross falls backwards and is replaced by his tomb as, according to our guide, 3pm is the time when he was taken down from the cross. He will pop up again at noon, the time of his resurrection.


The Museum of Time in Besancon is not as instructive as the one in St Nicolas d’Aliermont but it is housed in the 16th century Granvelle Palace. Not much to look at from the outside, it has a large portico courtyard with blue and ochre Chailluz limestone.

DSCF5736Between visiting Beauvais and Besancon I spent the night of the 27th September on Mont Auxois. The site of the battle of Alesia between the Romans and the Gauls, it would prove to be the perfect vantage point to view the lunar eclipse. Luckily the skies were clear and I was able to watch the moon traverse the southern sky, closely followed by the constellation of Orion. At 3.30am the eclipse had started and darkness began to creep across the surface of the moon. By 4.30am the moon had become blood red as it fell completely in the shadow of the earth. There was complete silence and even the wind had ceased.

DSCF5620The next morning I paid my respects to Vercingétorix, the Gaul who bravely resisted the Roman Empire in 52BC and who was imprisoned by Julius Caesar for 5 years before being paraded at Caesar’s Triumph and then executed for the pleasure of the people.


Time Flies – Don’t Waste It

These days it seems that we never have enough time to do everything we want. That’s why I like to get away for long periods to explore the world and also to find myself. Most of our timekeeping is defined by others: work, family, friends and daily chores such as shopping and keeping ourselves and our home clean.

DSCF5379It is with these constraints that I find myself having to arrive two hours before the scheduled departure time of my cross channel ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. 30 minutes pass before they open the check in booths, then an hour waiting in line and finally another 30 minutes watching as all the cars and HGVs are loaded on before I’m finally called forward to board and the bow doors are closed noisily behind me. Despite leaving 30 minutes late, we still manage to arrive on time which just goes to show how much they pad out the timetables to avoid claims of delay.

As I start my third European Winter Tour, I pause just 15 kms from Dieppe to discover what time really means. A small museum in the centre of St Nicolas d’Aliermont is dedicated to the local clockmakers. Ever since Galileo discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, man has been absorbed in understanding and monitoring time.

DSCF5392From sundials, hour glasses and water clocks to the first mechanical devices at the end of the 13th century, the museum tells the story of time. There is also a wonderful collection of local, ornately decorated, grandfather clocks, ‘clocks of Paris’ mounted in exquisite statues and the more dainty carriage clocks used by 19th century travellers on a Grand Tour. Most of these were produced in the village at the numerous factories, where up to 2/3rds of the workers were women due to their skill of working with tiny, intricate parts. The Bayard Factory produced thousands of alarm clocks which gained popularity after WWII. In 1989, after 122 years of clock-making, it closed down. The site has now been decontaminated (due to the radioactive materials, chemicals and heavy metals used in production) and demolished.

DSCF5398I suspect that the only clockmaker employed in the village now is the person who maintains all the timepieces in the museum. The digital age has taken over and very few people actually want a handcrafted clock for their mantelpiece. In fact, very few people actually have a mantelpiece to put one on.

Time is a very precious commodity and should not be wasted, so make sure that you put some aside to use for the things and the people that you love the most.