Bedford is a small town in the Eastern Cape that you might miss completely if you drove past. Its main reason for existing at all is because of the 1820 Settlers who arrived here nearly two centuries ago. Houses with beautiful facades, proud old buildings that echo the prosperity of the colonisers, and town traditions that belong in a small English town are some of its features. Bedford is a town oblivious to the continuation of time, or perhaps time is oblivious.

‘Watchmaker and Jeweller’ proclaims the shopfront of an unassuming little blue building in Hope Street. Its paint is weathered, its windows are dusty, its glass door stands open, and the shop appears empty. On entering, though, a strange hum surrounds and then envelopes the visitor, creeping up so gently that it soon slips into the back of one’s mind. The interminable ticking of clocks. The small space purrs and resonates with the sound of hundreds of second-hands perpetually ticking time softly away. The reverberance, close to a vibration, causes the building to buzz with a singular vivacity.

The idea of a machine that records time is one that fascinates people, ever since the ancients stuck a stick into the ground and measured time from the shadow that the sun cast at different stages of the day.  Today thousands of timepieces of all kinds are made daily, most people wear a wristwatch or consult their cellphones, and we are more bound by the measurement of time than the generations before us.  Yet horology is not just about measurement – it involves an appreciation for beauty in balance and accuracy.  But it is more than aesthetics because it requires the skills of science and mechanics. It is a craft in equilibrium between science and art.

Anthony Mauer is behind the counter at his workbench, working on some intricate detail of a timepiece that a customer has brought to him. He works his now-rare craft in a building next door to where his father plied his same trade. He was interested in mechanics from a young age, when he started fiddling with things in his father’s workshop. Horology was “a natural progression”, he says, one that he could easily slip into. Now, decades later, Mauer is a renowned and highly respected horologist.

Despite the sporadic flow customers, Mauer is at work every morning, opening the shop by 8:30, and leaves when the chimes and clangs of a hundred clocks tell him that it is five o’clock. At lunch time he meets with his wife, Isabel, a pharmacist, who works at the Bedford Pharmacy, and they usually take the two minute walk home to have a lunch break. Routine is something that swathes Bedford.  It is like an old cardigan – not unattractive, definitely not exciting, maybe with a few holes, but it is the most comfortable thing you own, which is why you will never throw it away. “Nothing exciting happens in a small town”, he says, but this seems to be what appeals to him. Time passes steadily, the days and weeks and months going by without ceasing. Hair goes grey, clothes acquire holes, dust settles, but all so slowly and steady that nothing really comes as a great shock. Mauer’s vocation is an ancient one – one that began thousands of years ago when our ancestors made calculations of the days between full moons. In a town like Bedford, though, nothing appears to occur rapidly, and so it is an apt trade.

A customer enters, an elderly woman, with a complaint about her wristwatch. She hands it to Mauer, who inspects it and finds the source of the problem, replacing the miniscule screw that was causing the problem. She thanks him, and asks what the charge is, but Mauer dismisses, saying “no, please don’t worry, I need the practice”. This is the attitude that Mauer has toward his local customers – nine times out of ten, he won’t charge them, and if he does, they tease him for undercharging.

Midday arrives with a crescendo of noises, like a motley choir finally unleashed at the pinnacle of a hymn. Tolling bells, chimes, cuckoos and cymbals join together in a cacophony announcing the onset of noon. Because many of the clocks in the shop are there for repair and so do not keep perfect time, this goes on for longer than the stroke of the hour, in fact throughout the day one can hear a confused clock or two chiming the incorrect time.

Why, today, when a watch can be made in a factory that churns out thousands of timekeepers a day, or people simply consult their cellphones or computer screens, would a person devote a lifetime to that antique craft?  Why indeed would one spend such precious time merely creating something whose sole purpose is to remind you how time ticks past irretrievably? After all small quartz watch bought at a supermarket can be more accurate than a clock born out of hours toiled over it.  Yet it does not retain the true soul of a clock created by a master horologist. It is for this reason that watchmakers still exist to spend hours upon hours on a single timepiece. Mauer’s specialty is skeleton clocks, of which he has made several. For this type of clock, the parts that conceal the inner workings of the mechanism are removed or significantly modified so that the inner parts are displayed. The intricate workmanship and precision can be observed, and the constant, mesmerising movement creates a beautiful exhibition of accuracy.

Nothing has changed in the shop since the 1960s when the shop was first bought, besides the build-up of the debris of time – old lifeless watches, heaps of dead batteries, broken watch straps, screws, cogs, innards, and unrecognisable parts litter every available surface. Walls and ceilings that that were white now gather dirt and damp seeps under the paint. These are records of the debris of time, and the flotsam and jetsam of years gone by. Mauer himself works at his own pace, doesn’t hurry, and always has time for a mid-morning cup of tea.  People send Mauer clocks and watches from all around the world. Recently, a clock was sent to him from Canada – it was made in 1688 and is worth a small fortune, yet sits among other clocks in the shop, contentedly ticking away. What is time, anyway, to a device that has been ticking it away for three hundred and twenty one years.

The ticking of a clock is such a simple sound, steadily moving, impervious to the rest of the world, as if it could continue right into infinity. Time is the glue that holds us all and places us in the dimension that we call existence. A timepiece is not the true keeper of time – they just remind us how powerless we are to its effects. Time is our master, and we it’s slave. Time is impassive and unbiased. Time is the only constant that we have - it is all we can rely on.

A Japanese electronic clock waits on Mauer’s wall to be fixed – another patient among hundreds. “That clock” he says disparagingly “… I haven’t checked to see exactly what’s wrong with it, but it tocks. I don’t mind a tick, but I don’t like a tock”.