Time Machines

P1020772The town of Loches is dominated by the Tour Saint Antoine, a Renaissance tower built in the mid-16th century, in the reign of François I. It is 52 metres high, a square column terminating in an octagonal superstructure. But what is it? There is no church attached to it, and no bell atop. This weekend was the “journées du patrimoine” in France and we took the opportunity to visit the tower, which is normally closed to visitors. The visit began with an arduous ascent – the 143 narrow stone steps of a spiral staircase. One then emerges onto a narrow balcony around the central space with a unique and dizzying view over Loches and its magnificent citadel, over 1,500 years of history.

There is no bell in the Tour Saint Antoine, though undoubtedly there once was. The historian who talked us through its past said that the main question was whether it was a “clocher” or a “beffroi” or both. What’s the difference? Essentially a “clocher” is a church bell that serves for religious timekeeping, whereas a “beffroi” is a secular or communal timekeeper with the tower as a lookout post over the countryside and the bell serving to rally the people of the town. The Tour Saint Antoine was probably a “clocher” since a church once stood at its base, later to be replaced by the Eglise Saint Antoine opposite the Palais de Justice. In the course of the visit, we learned how the old ramparts were removed as the town expanded, and how traces of this expansion are still visible from on high. Incidentally, the “bel” part of “belfry” has nothing to do with bells etymologically: the word derives from old German and meant “a high place of safety, tower”.

Another response to the question “What is the difference between a clocher and a beffroi”? One goes “ding” and the other goes “dong”… 

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Today, the best thing about the Tour Saint Antoine is the view.

We also took advantage of the weekend’s open-door policy to visit the Horlogerie Vassort & Joubert, a master clockmaker’s workshop. The building was an apothecary’s in the 18th century, and the oldest part goes back to the 15th century. Since 1983, Gilles Vassort has made this his headquarters, from which he has restored clocks in châteaux, museums and public edifices in many parts of France, in addition to watches and clocks for private customers. His young assistant and prospective successor explained to us how clocks were repaired, the way in which mechanical parts were made, the hands, the face and so on. 

Clocks have a special place in my family. My father was obsessed with them and I once counted 40 in his small house (not including those that were tucked away in chests of drawers). He would buy defunct clocks, particularly carriage clocks, and revive them with quartz movements.

I also had a brief period when I collected mechanical watches and learned as much as I could about them. I still have a few, including a Vulcain Cricket, the so-called Presidents’ watch since it was worn by Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Johnson. It is one of the first alarm watches and legend has it that the Swiss maker, asking himself “What is tiny but makes a big noise?” answered “A cricket”, and that the miniature alarm mechanism is based on direct observation of the insect. It is also said that on one occasion, when Eisenhower was publicly announcing a temporary embargo on Swiss goods, his Vulcain Cricket alarm went off and all the journalists present recognised the signature sound of the Swiss timepiece.  

I also have my grandfather’s old fob watch and chain, which I can remember him wearing in his waistcoat, as he lay on the sofa reading in Balham, back in the 1960s. 

The relative merits of watches and clocks with mechanical and quartz movements in some ways sum up how we feel about the technological revolution that has swept us along with it. While the quartz mechanism is infinitely more reliable, convenient and trouble-free, it is strangely soulless. In Paris, I’ve seen a number of old-fashioned watch and clock repairers closing down due to lack of business. But every now and then one comes across someone quietly keeping the centuries-old traditions of craftsmanship alive, such as Gilles Vassort and his apprentices in the quiet backwater of Loches. 

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© 2020 Adrian Mathews