The glorious golden galleon


IN the early 1990s we were living in Barnmead Road, an enclave of Victorian houses in Beckenham, Kent. It had a strong community spirit and retained its original features to the extent that it was a popular location for period TV dramas.

With a growing family, we had harboured vague thoughts of finding a bigger place but achieved nothing until one day a note came through the door asking if we would consider selling our home. It was written by a couple, David and Pam Thompson, who had tried to buy our house before we did but saw their own sale fall through. They had now sold their own property in North London and were good to go.

We invited them round to view, although they were obviously familiar with the place, and found them delightful and interesting company. David was the Curator of Horology at the British Museum while Pam ran the library at the Royal College of Music. They made us an instant and generous offer, and we happened upon a much bigger house in nearby Bromley at an accessible price, so off we went.

Pam and David came to our new home several times for dinner and reciprocated in kind. One evening over several bottles they told us the remarkable story of how they got together, and found their professional calling.

Both were working at Blackwell’s music shop in Oxford in the early 1970s when Pam was entrusted to hand-deliver some valuable manuscripts to an address in faraway Prague. They were not an item at the time but David chivalrously offered to accompany her and make sure she came to no harm.

Having safely dropped off their cargo, they needed somewhere to stay and phoned a number given by a colleague who said she had a friend who might put them up. They were directed to a magnificent apartment where one wall was entirely covered in clocks. David was enchanted by the sight and sound of these wonderful antiques and decided on the spot that this was his purpose in life.

Returning to England, he and Pam were married and she supported him while he completed a course at Hackney College in making clocks and watches. His obvious affinity with the subject led to a post at the British Museum, where he eventually headed his department. Pam applied for the post at the RCM and got it. Both had found their dream job.

I was delighted and honoured when David suggested giving me and my daughter Caroline a private tour of his domain. There were countless priceless items of great antiquity, but the exhibit which stood out above all for me was an astonishing automaton in the form of a 31-inch-long golden galleon made by Hans Schlottheim of Augsburg in about 1585.

I quote from David’s brilliant book Clocks

‘It has a small clock, showing hours and minutes on a beautiful silver dial with coloured enamel floral motifs. Sailors wielding hammers in the crow’s nests strike the hours and quarters. However the machine is not essentially a clock, but a magnificent and ingenious automaton designed to announce a banquet by travelling independently along a table. As it went, a small regal or pipe organ would play a tune and drumsticks would play on a skin stretched across the base of the ship’s hull. While all this was going on, the tops of the fore and mizzen masts would twirl round. As part of the entertainment, the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, preceded by two heralds, processed and each made a small bow before the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, seated on a throne beneath a canopy. The ship moved on again accompanied by the music and drumming and as a grand finale to entertain the guests, it fired the main cannon in the bowsprit, which then ignited a fast-burning fuse that burnt quickly around the hull, firing off the other cannons in turn to finish its performance in a wonder of noise and smoke.’

How thunderstruck the 16th-century diners must have been to witness this extraordinary spectacle.

The golden galleon was in a glass case and obviously not in action when we saw it but I found it utterly awe-inspiring, and still do. What a privilege to see it, and you can, too, in the clock and watch gallery, rooms 38 & 39, and at this link. 

The Twickers streaker

ONE of our near-neighbours in Beckenham was a chap called Chris Stevens, a former graphic designer who for reasons best known to himself chucked it all in to become a joiner and kitchen fitter.

Chris was a rugby union fanatic and his claim to fame was that on January 2, 1982, he was a steward at Twickenham when England played Australia. At half time 24-year-old Erika Roe, a drunken wench with a formidable chest, took it upon herself to tear off her shirt and run topless across the pitch. Bearded, cloth-capped Chris was first on the scene, removing his overall in the vain hope of using it to protect the shameless Miss Roe’s modesty before she was shepherded away into the arms of Plod by a Union-Jack-waving old buffer who was a self-appointed England mascot. Erika became a celebrity purely on the basis of having flashed her knockers, and made countless TV appearances.

Some 33 years after Twickers, she was still making an exhibition of herself, lifting her top at an event in Swindon to raise money for breast cancer research (this time she wisely wore a bra). Strangely, Chris was never invited to reprise his supporting role in what has become known as the most famous streak of all time.

A PS from PG

On the cue ‘five aunts’ I had given at the knees a trifle, for the thought of being confronted with such a solid gaggle of aunts, even if those of another, was an unnerving one. Reminding myself that in this life it is not aunts that matter, but the courage that one brings to them, I pulled myself together.

PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season

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