Time etched on walls of our churches

A scratch sundial
A scratch sundial

Our churches have been the centre of the community for hundreds of years and parishioners would flock to the church several times a day for services. A bell would be rung which (in the days before traffic noise) would be heard throughout the village and surrounding fields.

But in the days before watches and clocks how did the clergy know what the time was? The answer, of course, was by using the sun.

Crude sundials were often scratched onto the south wall of a church to help tell the time.

A hole would be drilled into the church wall to accommodate a gnomon (usually just a wooden peg) and a fan shape of scratches would be drawn underneath to mark the times of the different masses. Mass was said at Matins, (before dawn), Prime (6am), Tierce (9am), Sext (noon) Nones (3pm) and Vespers (sunset).

Other masses would be said at Nocturn and Compline (night) but the sundial did not work then, therefore the dials tended only to show the hours for the working day from 6am to 6pm. A longer line would indicate midday. Although it was only necessary to have the markings underneath the gnomon (the sun only shines downwards!) some are circular in shape. It is thought that these sundials can date back to Norman times or even earlier although most were made between 1100 and 1500. They are known as Mass Dials or Scratch Dials although I have seen several, like those at St Leonard’s Church, Denton, with just a series of holes.

One of the clearest ones to see locally is at St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston, where the dial has been etched onto the greensand stone blocks to the left of the south porch. But at nearby Firle the dial is almost hidden under lichen growing on the ancient church walls.

There are at least 1,400 scratch dials across the country, many of them in our own country. Some churches have more than one and can often be found in some odd places.

They were made to be at eye level but today tend to be much lower, this is an indication of the fact that we as humans are much taller than we used to be, and also because due to centuries of internments, graveyards are much higher than they used to be.

They can sometimes be seen in some odd places; at Litlington Church there is a scratch dial on the south porch but also two on the north side of the church. At Folkington the dial is also in the north side of the church and upside-down. The sun is not likely to have reached these walls so it is evidence that they were moved from the south side of the church during a former church restoration. At Westham the dial is on the west side of the porch which also indicated it has been moved from its original position.

The scratch dial at Bishopstone church is rather special as it is not only ancient (dating to Saxon times) but indicates the tides as well as the canonical hours. It is carved with the name EAD-RIC. Eadric was a King of Kent in the seventh century but was possibly also the name of the local priest. Recent church restoration tends to show that the dial is not in its original place.

Some churches have several dials (Alciston has five!). These may have been built to account for the angle of the sun during different seasons. Remember that these were not designed to tell the time accurately as, until the coming of the railway, time was different depending on where you were.

The Great Western Railway found that the time in Bristol was actually ten minutes behind the time in London which is over two degrees further east.

The GWR pushed for a standardised time and Greenwich Mean time was eventually adopted nationally in 1880. If you visit Bristol you will notice that the clock on the Corn Exchange building has two minute hands – one to show London time and another to show Bristol time.

Scratch dials stopped being carved by the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. By this time sundials had become more accurate with the introduction of sloped sundials with a triangular shaped gnomon.

Clocks were also installed in many church towers making the scratch dial redundant.

Next time you visit one of our ancient churches, see if you can find a scratch dial but don’t reset you watch to it!