Scratch beneath the surface for fascinating insights

02 November 2006


Someone who lives in the village discovered a "scratch dial" on the church wall. Do you know anything about them? We are quite fascinated.
WELL, I had never heard of a scratch dial either, and started my own search for information.

The enquiry came from my mother, who still lives in the village where I grew up. Attending the church school involved us in visits on very cold Ash Wednesday mornings (no heating in those days), and festivals for Mothering Sunday and Easter. We also had the church as our main contact with history, and wrote stories, drew pictures, and rubbed brass with determination. But we never heard about a scratch dial, which now suggests to me that 1950s people were not aware of its existence - but there it is on the outside wall.

The scratch dial consists of a radiating set of lines emanating from a small hole. A stick placed in the hole threw a shadow on to the radiating lines to give an approximation of the time, so that the priest could start mass at a regular time. Think of it as a primitive sundial, placed vertically on a south-facing church wall. The whole dial is a few inches across, and the stick (posh name: gnomon) would have been a twig the size of a pencil.

For a while it was thought that scratch dials dated from Saxon times, but more recent thought puts them nearer the Norman Conquest. The newly discovered dial is at Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, but there are several thousand in medieval churches around the country.

The chancel windows of this church are some 300 or 400 years later than Norman, but it does have a Norman font and doorway; so perhaps more of the walls, apart from the windows, date back to the Norman church. Mind you, the village might just have been behind the times in installing its scratch dial - it is still only a tiny farming village, probably the same size as its Domesday counterpart.

When so many churches around the country are trying to re-establish themselves in the cultural, social, and architectural heritage of their neighbourhoods, discoveries like this one create a new link with lives and stories of the past that will fascinate children and adults.

Do other churches have undiscovered features that resonate with the limitations of people a thousand years ago? Village churches struggle for survival, but renewed interest in the history and insight they offer to children can be a new point of engagement with schools and drop-in visitors.

Did local farmers call in from the fields to check the time, sticking a twig in the scratch dial, or did they wait for the dial-reading priest to ring a bell before downing tools and heading for church? Did they attend the daily offices or did they only do Sunday mass? What does the scratch dial lead to in the life experience of our ancestors?

I am sure some readers will contact me about scratch dials in ancient churches, but part of me is curious about what other fascinating little titbits of the church story I am missing.

Maybe in summer I should join one of those cycle tours of country churches, but I'd probably never get past the first one, hunting its nooks and crannies for undiscovered secrets.

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