Death-defying feat up clock tower

Photos by Peter McIntosh.
Photos by Peter McIntosh.
One view from the Dunedin Municipal Chambers Clock Tower.
One view from the Dunedin Municipal Chambers Clock Tower.
One view from the Dunedin Municipal Chambers Clock Tower.
One view from the Dunedin Municipal Chambers Clock Tower.

High above the passer-by, glass or wire netting-covered openings give a tantalising glimpse into the towers and spires of historic Dunedin. Overcoming vertigo, David Loughrey ventured where most do not get to go. Here, he explores the magic spaces inside the clock towers of the Dunedin Railway Station, Dunedin Town Hall, the University of Otago's registry building, and the spire of Knox Church.

• Otago Towers and Spires series

The three-storeyed Victorian Italianate building with heavily rusticated ground floor and giant Corinthian pilasters in Dunedin's Octagon has a clocktower atop that does not look impressively high.

On the building otherwise known as the Municipal Chambers, the tower does rise as high as, perhaps, an eight-storey building.

But step out on to the small access walkway that surrounds the top layer of the four-layer cake that is the tower, and the first and most natural reaction is to either go straight back inside, or at least cling desperately to stone walls at your back.

Because even if you are not prone to vertigo, the trip to the top is just a trifle harrowing.

It begins in a hallway behind Mayor Dave Cull's office in the chambers, where the many photographed faces of the city's mayors line one wall, and a sculpture of the building made from icing (honestly) sits quietly in a little perspex display case by the other.

From there, one proceeds through the Edinburgh Room, out the back and up, up, up a series of steps that become thinner and steeper, and turn from steps to ladders, then more precarious ladders, as you go.

The dust and the detritus of the building trade cover the floor, and mysterious electrical or telephone cables snake downwards from the ceiling and end mysteriously unplugged on the floor, the original use lost in the mists of time.

Speaking of which, from insidethe clock faces, it takes little imagination to turn back time and re-imagine yourself as silent film star Harold Lloyd, hanging death-defyingly from the hands of the clock, high above the city streets.

The clock mechanism itself is a thing of beauty, its shining cogs tick-tocking reassuringly and historically on.

Towards the top, the distance from floor to ceiling extends alarmingly, and the almost vertical and very well worn sets of "stairs" test the bravery.

But the top comes, with one final ladder leading to the uppermost of the levels, where doors lead out to a balcony that has one of the city's best views.

The Octagon though, is a long way down, and there is a strong inclination to hold grimly on to the handrail to keep that giddiness at bay.

The view, of course, is worth the sweaty palms.

From a fascinating study of the details of the municipal chambers' roofs, across to the spires of the adjacent St Paul's Cathedral, it sweeps across the city and up the harbour, or past St Kilda beach and out to sea.

Dunedin Municipal Chambers Clocktower Chamber:

• Oamaru stone on a base of Port Chalmers breccia.
• Opened for business on 25 May 1880.
• Architect: Robert Arthur Lawson.
• Clock: made by Gillett and Bland Steam Clock Company of Croyden, London.
• Designer: Alexander McArthur.
• Pendulum released: Midday, December 2 1880.

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