Norman Hangs Up Church Clock Winding Handle After 40+ Years

St Mary’s Church clock has kept accurate timing and chimed every 15 mins thanks to Henley resident, Norman Topsom after winding it up for the last 40+ years.  This week though he has hung up the winding handle as a new automatic electric winding system has been installed.

The clock, a JW Benson of Ludgate Hill clock was originally installed in 1877 and Norman used to wind up the clock every four days.  Norman said, “I was bellringing when I was asked by the vicar then, Reverend Payne if I would take on the job.    I said as I was up there quite a lot, why not? I’ve only just found out that I could have left it slightly longer than the 4 days!”  Norman fitted this around his job as Station Master at Twyford Station until he retired in 2015, sometimes going to do it before an early shift at work.   He took the 60 very narrow, winding spiral steps up the tower and then wound each of the cogs – quarter, hour and the clock itself.  Norman commented, “It took around 30 minutes to complete and the hardest one to wind was the quarter which has the heaviest weights – it really took a lot of effort.”

The new automatic system, costing around £6,500 has been installed by Richard from Smith of Derby in Northampton in two days.  Richard said, “The system uses the same mechanics of the old clock but just winds the clock up automatically.”  Norman commented, “Surprisingly the new motors are quite small – it’s an interesting piece of machinery.”

Norman has until recently gone up the steep steps alone but over the last five months or so Church Warden, Robin Hartley has been accompanying him.  Norman was also given the responsibility of putting up the flags on the church mast over the last 40 years.

Norman was born in Henley and worked on the railways for 53 years. He was awarded an MBE in 2005 for his services to the railways and the community and in 2015 when he retired he had a train named after him.

How did Norman feel to give up this job after all these years? Norman replied, “I’m actually quite happy to give it up, I had to set aside 2 days every week to wind the clock. Now I’ve got 2 days to do whatever I want like travelling, gardening etc.  It didn’t always fit in very well around the job.  You realise when it is time to give something up.”

Over the years, Norman has had a few incidents whilst up in the clock tower, he recalled, “I was asked to put the flag at half mast for the late Peter Coni’s funeral, (former Chair of Henley Royal Regatta) in 1993. I went up at 4am to do it and when I was at the top of the tower I saw shooting star, after shooting star and I made a wish each time,   The sky was full of them. I ran out of wishes in the end!”

On another occasion I went up to wind the clock up one morning and I think someone had left the window open.  There was a kestrel perched on the window ledge and I just walked past a boy along the riverside who I knew kept those birds. I thought I would go and get him and see if he could catch it and take it away.  He was about 15 years old, he walked up to the tower and said that’s my kestrel!  I thought kestrels all looked the same but he put his arm out and the kestrel and came and perched on his arm and off he went pleased as anything.”

The entrance to the clock tower is to the left of the main entrance.  Another time Norman said, “I came down again one early morning on the way to work and there was an almighty crash in the church, I said to myself I’m not going in there to find out what it is.  I was out of there quick on my bike like a shot.  It’s not that I believe in ghosts but I wasn’t going to be proven right or wrong though.”

Norman plans though to continue bellringing and will be making his way with others up those very steep steps for a little while longer.