Down one of Seven Dials’ quieter streets is a quirky piece of building decoration. Situated above the Shorts Gardens’ branch of Holland & Barrett is the Neal’s Yard Water Clock.
In the early 1970s, the streets around Neal Street were far from the shopping destination they are today. Much of the Seven Dials and Neal Street area had been used for warehouse storage for fruit and vegetables for the market sellers in Covent Garden. When the market relocated to its current site in Nine Elms in 1974, the warehouses were left empty. It was around this time, Neal’s Yard started becoming a destination for alternative living as commercial shops and restaurants moved in. Activist Nicholas Saunders (1938-1988) opened a wholefood shop in a warehouse in 1976, eventually expanding to a dairy and apothecary. The business was later taken over by Saunders’ former employee Michael Loftus (1948-2012).
In 1982, Loftus commissioned the water clock as an attraction to draw people to the shop. It was designed and made in six weeks by aquatic horologists Tim Hunkin and Andy Plant. As the clock struck on the hour, water in a tank (which contained an immersion heater to prevent the water from freezing in the winter) on the roof would flow down the façade of the building, ringing bells as it headed down the ladder towards the clock face. Meanwhile, six green characters would tip their watering cans to fill a tank behind the shop signage. As the water level rose, floating plastic flowers rose into view as if they had suddenly ‘grown’. The figure on the far left could swivel out to the street and spray water on to pedestrians below, which would have been quite a shock to those not paying attention.
Loftus sold up in 1989 and health food chain Holland & Barratt later took over the lease. The clock hasn’t worked for some time, but still remains in situ for Londoners and visitors to admire.
- The Neal’s Yard Water Clock is located above Holland & Barrett, 21-23 Shorts Gardens, Covent Garden, WC2H 9AS. Nearest station: Covent Garden or Leicester Square.
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