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‘Scratch dials’ on medieval churches are logged before they disappear

15 July 2022


A scratch dial at St Peter and St Paul, Wadhurst, East Sussex

A scratch dial at St Peter and St Paul, Wadhurst, East Sussex

ENTHUSIASTS are compiling a register of primitive sundials carved on medieval church walls before they are lost to weathering or building work.

Unlike more modern sophisticated dials that can define the hours, these devices were simply a set of lines crudely scratched on a wall, and are believed to indicate the times of various services through the day. A central hole allowed the user to insert a stick to cast a shadow.

NEIL OWEN/GEOGRAPH/COMMONSTwo scratch dials set into the south porch of St Leonard’s, Butleigh, Somerset

They are traditionally known as “mass dials”, but the British Sundial Society, which is compiling the register, prefers the name “scratch dial”, as there are doubts about their intended purpose. Some are not on sunlit south-facing walls, while others could be religious graffiti or memorials. There are even a few on non-religious buildings, including a tithe barn in Bradford-on-Avon. They date from the Norman period to the early 17th century, when clocks provided more accurate time-keeping.

“We know little or nothing about why or how they were used or set up,” Ben Jones, who is compiling the register, said. “There is no document from the Archbishop saying how to do things. It would be fabulous to find ‘The Manual’.

“Monasteries had water clocks or candles to measure time, but that didn’t exist elsewhere. A lot are quite rudimentary. They do not work like a modern sundial: they are all over the shop. But back then it didn’t matter if it was 11.45 or 2.30: they just needed a generalised idea of what the time was. It was mostly for the parish priest, as the population would not have to attend all the different offices.

“They are disappearing, mainly because of weathering, but also through repairs or alterations. Lots were recorded in former times by antiquarian and other societies, but have since been lost. Some were probably just scratched in plaster.”

People can help by taking two photos: one of the general location, and a second, head-on, close-up. The society has listed more than 3500, so far. “We are relying on people just going out and looking,” Mr Jones said. “We know there are not many in Cornwall and west Devon, simply because the granite there is too hard to scratch, but there are still a lot more to be found and recorded.”


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