19 March 2016

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Today is Saturday, which means the paternoster in the Attenborough Tower is not working.

On weekdays the paternoster clatters and hums, bringing a continuous loop of scholars to and from their research, teaching or meetings with other staff or students. The paternoster is switched off overnight and at weekends, leaving students and staff to use the less sedate lift or exercise their calves on the stairs, if they are working when they should be doing other fun things. Sometimes the paternoster is out of order for extended periods – perhaps when the mechanisms are being serviced, or someone unfamiliar with protocol brings heavy or unpredictable cargo – no more than two persons allowed in a single carriage. The paternoster was out of order for the best part of a summer when a workman tried to bring a long set of step ladders on board, puncturing through the walls of the carriage. Spare parts had to be brought in from eastern Europe. Spare parts always have to brought in from somewhere exotic – there are few paternoster lifts surviving in the UK (although there is one in the Arts Tower at Sheffield University).

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The paternoster is designed to move large numbers of people between the teaching rooms and offices of the Attenborough Tower quicker than the lift – a continuous loop of carriages on a giant bicycle chain, which is always a novelty to new students and visitors to the university. While studying for my PhD I worked in an office on the 18th (top) floor of the tower, and while you’re never quite sure what day of the week it is while buried in research, the start of a new academic year is heralded by the yelps of delighted new students discovering the paternoster for the first time, wary of being tipped on their heads when their carriage gets to the top of the tower and has to make the return trip down. What does happen when you get to the top of the paternoster? Maybe you’ll have to find out…

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