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
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
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.