Publication : The Northumbrian
Issue : 119
Date : Dec 2010 / Jan 2011
Author : Susan Burke

WHEN TIME STANDS STILL, IT'S GORDON'S MOMENT

SUSAN BURKE meets fourth-generation clock repairer Gordon Caris at his Hexham workplace.

GLASSES of their favourite tipple charged ready to welcome in the New Year, countywide, many of those privileged to own an heirloom clock will turn their eyes towards the treasured timepiece as midnight approaches.

When the clock chimes simultaneously with the sonorous tones of Big Ben and they raise their glasses in celebration, some may also toast the expertise of the highly regarded Northumbrian-born clock repairer Gordon Caris.

Gordon asserts that, when properly maintained, there is no reason why a well made clock should not serve its intended purpose for a thousand years – perhaps more. Indicating the shelves of assorted mechanisms awaiting attention in his Hexham workplace, he told me: "I've handled some very old clocks on my travels around Northumberland, including a lantern clock made in the early years of the 17th century.

"You have to admire the engineering knowledge and skills of the craftsmen of that time. It might sound unlikely, but a clock of quality built a hundred years ago may well be keeping perfectly good time in AD 3000."

Be that as it may, on the odd occasion even a clock engineered by a well respected and acclaimed maker can suffer from the unwanted attentions of a gremlin. Gordon recalls being presented with one such blighted timepiece after it had travelled the circuit of top British horological repairers.

He agreed to take on the tough assignment of fixing the grandfather clock and after a couple of days’ labour was ready to set it ticking again. For 47 hours Gordon was delighted with its (and his) performance as it was keeping perfect time. But the clock failed to manage a full two days; it stopped.

Never to go again? Not if Gordon Caris could help it. Finding that a brisk walk often helped on such occasions, he returned to the task full of purpose. There was no gremlin, of course, inside the timepiece. The logical explanation had to be that periodically the fates were conspiring to form a conjunction of circumstances which caused the mechanism to fail.

The fault had to lie in some perhaps insignificant, yet vital, part of the intricate workings. The movement was stripped down again with infinite patience and placed on the lathe. As Gordon had figured out, one tooth on one cog was an infinitesimal fraction too short.

Called upon to service some extremely valuable clocks over his years in business at Hexham and Alnwick, Gordon explained: "Only two things can destroy a clock – fire or fashion. Fashion certainly influences the value of a timepiece. I remember a clock that sold for two shillings and sixpence at Slaley decades ago. It was later revalued and said to be worth several thousand pounds."

It is for this reason that Gordon never consigns a mechanism to the skip. “Helping Dad in the shop as a child, I was given the job of smashing unwanted cases. I must have been about 12 at the time and I begged him to keep them. He ignored my pleas: he used to fix me with a glance and order ‘just get on with it’. I did as I was told, but against my better judgement. From what I’ve seen since at sales and auctions, some of those movements I destroyed might have fetched a good price for somebody.”

Gordon is the fourth generation of the Caris family to offer a clock repair service in Northumberland. Obliged from the age of eight to earn his pocket money by sweeping out the Hexham shop for his father, he told me: “bits of clocks were lying about the place. As children do, I started fiddling with them and found I enjoyed dismantling the mechanisms and reassembling them.

After working with his father for 15 years, Gordon acquired premises in Old Church, Hexham and established his own business in 1972. Encouraged and assisted in developing the enterprise by his indispensable wife Nancy, the business moved into its present Market Place shop in 1984.

Stripping away plasterboard from the steep spiral staircase during renovations to the old building, Gordon and Nancy’s excitement knew no bounds when they exposed the wall of what proved to be the mediaeval church of St Mary. Tall and narrow, the distinctive house which serves as their workplace also has a cellar thought to date from the sixth century. Gordon is of the opinion that an underground passage may once have led from this to the abbey but, so far, there have been no ghostly occurrences to support this.

Gordon’s great-grandfather, the Gateshead clock maker and repairer John Dove Caris, left that area to set up his workshop on Hexham’s Battle Hill in the early 1900s.

His great-grandson assured me that it was still possible to see clocks built by his ancestor in Gateshead. When John Dove Caris was born it was customary to give a child the mother’s maiden name. His mother was, in fact, a member of the family later destined to become successful builders’ merchants.

John Dove Caris and his wife raised several sons. One of them, Stanley, would eventually become Gordon’s grandfather. As young men, the adventurous Caris brothers all chose to abandon Britain for labour in the fabled Australian goldfields. Although his brothers made their fortunes and went on to establish a well-known chain of jewellery stores based in Perth, Western Australia, Stanley returned to Hexham after a severe illness and joined his father’s business.

Stanley’s son Lloyd, in turn, expressed an interest in clock repair and joined his father. The line of inheritance was set to continue when fourth generation Gordon was born to Lloyd and Ethel Caris, and it will not end when he retires. Nancy and Gordon were pleased to inform me that their son Guy was considering coming into the business.

“When that day finally dawns it’s unlikely that Guy will ever be short of work,” Gordon remarked. “There are fewer people now choosing to do the job of repairing antique clocks as the mechanisms are very varied and very complicated. It’s demanding work, so you do need to be pretty disciplined and patient. Nevertheless, there’s a big call for my services across Northumberland and further afield. One man even sent me a clock part from his home in the Bronx, New York.”

Gordon Caris mentioned that he likes the fact that every job he undertakes is different. He particularly enjoys the challenge of servicing turret clocks – the large-faced mechanical clocks often seen on old houses, frequently over the stables’ entrance. He said: “Turret clocks are very interesting, but you need to have a head for heights and to be fairly agile to work on them.

“I recall one occasion when I was up on the roof of Bamburgh Castle’s clock tower. It was very windy and I had to lean so far forward when attempting to align the hands on the dial that I began to fear for my life. After that I always did the job the really hard way by running back and forth along corridors and up and down the tower stairs!”

Gordon is currently in possession of a splendid clock which has marked the comings and goings of the millions of people who have flocked through the doors of Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary since its completion. Peacock Hall is the aging hospital’s main entrance and the timepiece is thought to be possibly the only original feature left in the much-modernised building.

Charged with cleaning the mechanism and thereby ensuring the clock keeps going for some while yet, Gordon – who is of an athletic build and who keeps himself in good shape by cycling and walking – will clamber up the scaffolding and replace it in its familiar setting. “I’ll be in the right place if I do fall off,” he joked.

Gordon opened his Alnwick shop in 1985. Unsure himself as to whether he should believe local folklore, he related the legend concerning its cellar. “It’s said that bears were once fattened there, chained by the restraining rings still seen in the walls today. It seems that after the poor creatures were slaughtered their fat was rendered and used for cosmetic purposes.”

As luck would have it, these days Gordon does not often find himself descending the dark cellar stairs too often. Kept busy attending to the requests of his clients, he told me: “I enjoy my visits to north Northumberland. There are some lovely folk up there and the countryside is very beautiful. Through working in all parts of the county I get to know people from all walks of life and am privileged to see some magnificent properties; that’s one of the best parts of the job.

“Of course, as far as some people are concerned – particularly the teens and twenties who think my work has no street-cred at all – repairing antique watches, clocks and barometers sounds a really boring job. But once they know what’s involved and have stopped being surprised, they are often very interested in what I do.

“Courses on clock repair struggle to find enough students. But I would suggest that there are enough rewarding opportunities within the profession to suit the ambitions of any committed and enterprising young person.”