Time and Timing

Scratch-Dials: the flexibility of time.

In a strange synchronicity recently, it turns out three churches of my acquaintance are all supposed to have the same interesting feature… though two of them actually don’t!

At St Hubert’s church, Idsworth in Hampshire there is a feature which, for all its ephemeral nature, provides a powerful reminder of the fact that time is more than the fixed release of particles in an atomic clock. It looks as though someone has attempted to scratch a sundial onto the side of the church, an artefact known as Scratch Dial (sometimes Mass Clock or Mass Dial). It is not unique, there are thought to be about 3,000 of them throughout the country and they date from the Anglo-Saxon period well into the medieval. They are nearly always on the South wall of a church and at eye-height or lower. The form varies but they can be averaged out as a central hole with a series of sometimes quite faint radial lines and dots gouged into the stone around it.

I have been aware of the dial at Idsworth for some time but in the course of my work, a rather plain looking booklet came across my desk recently called “The Origin and Use of Church Scratch Dials” by T. W. Cole. It was published in the 1930s and has, itself, an ephemeral feel at just 16 pages, stapled into thin paper covers. So obviously, on discovering that there was a ‘gazetteer’ at the back of the booklet listing churches across the country known to have scratch dials I ran my finger down the list looking for Idsworth: and wasn’t disappointed. I was surprised though, to find mention of a place I had been exploring just a week before in the Midlands: the lost medieval village of Wolfhampcote, of which only the church survives. St Peter’s, Wolfhampcote was listed in the gazetteer. Given that Idsworth is also a church without its village, this seemed a poignant synchronicity. But looking further into the list I discovered that the neighbouring village to Idsworth, Chalton, just over the ridge of the Down was also named.

It is not clear what scratch-dials looked like originally. One speculation that begins to make sense of them is that they may have been painted and the carved lines were simply there as a guide to how to repaint them when the limewash was renewed. This would explain why they vary so widely from the very perfunctory to the quite detailed: the carved lines themselves are simply guidelines and they are all we have left.

The scratch dial at St Hubert’s Idsworth in Hampshire

How they were used is also up for discussion. A south pointing stick in the central hole would cast a shadow that could be used to mark off the times of the daily offices and when Mass was said in the church. Many of them have a stronger emphasis on the lines representing the third, the sixth and the ninth hour which correspond to the ecclesiastical offices that were named from these hours: Terce, Sext and None. These were times that a village priest was obligated to be saying his prayers. Terce, the third hour of the day, also became associated with the time to say the day’s Mass.

It is interesting to reflect on how, without a mechanical clock to keep time for you, an ‘hour’ comes to mean something much more than a mathematical division of the arc of the Earth’s rotation. As Cole said when writing about time and scratch-dials “it was more of a day-planning arrangement than a time system.” The Medieval day ran from sunrise to sunset and that was the very definition of a day, the length of the hours it contained was, at this point secondary to that very practical consideration, if it’s light, its daytime. Days shorten and lengthen, and so do hours stretch and move. Hours bend like shadows to reflect the season and the angle of the sun. At Wolfhampcote, a few fields along from the church it is possible to see in the long grasses of summer, a definite striation, light and dark grasses in long lines probably reflecting that beneath the soil lie the remains of the strip fields of medieval agriculture. For farmers too, the notion of an hour is as mutable as the length of a day as the seasons turn. At Idsworth, if you sit on the sunny bench next to the scratch-dial and look across the shallow valley that faces you, the top of the hill on the other side was once criss-crossed by tens of similar fields not visible today.

Scratch-dials marked local time. The turn of the Earth and the rising of the sun in place after place across the land is baked into this notion of passing time. The tilt of the Earth as it travels in a loop around the Sun shortens and lengthens days and hours in a way we all experience. It’s a wild speculation, but a fun one, to suggest that the variability of our experience of time in this way might be what gives us our ability to perceive time passing at different speeds: the slow drawl of a summer afternoon and the quick cold chatter of a winter morning. This physical setting has been around for longer than human consciousness after all, it is the background noise of how we perceive the world. It is also the experience of the walker, whether alone or in a group, that on top of the way we experience time passing at different speeds, that perception is framed by the physicality of the environment, the hours of daylight, the failing of the light at the end of the day or with the coming on of a storm.

St Hubert’s Church, Idsworth in Hampshire


St Peters, Wolfhampcote in Warwickshire

Having found the reference to a scratch dial at Wolfhampcote in Cole’s booklet, a friend was sent back to look for it, but an hour’s searching on the walls of the church proved fruitless. The fabric of the church, though stable has suffered massively from crumbling and corrosion; possibly a dial was visible ninety years ago when the booklet was written but no longer. Having said that, it is odd to consider that this is a feature which may have lasted 500 years before it was noted in Cole’s booklet; would it really have disappeared in the 90 years since?

Having discovered the reference to Chalton, this obviously also required some investigation and there is a good circular walk which takes in both churches in about 6km. St Michael’s in Chalton is almost as venerable as Idsworth, both are Saxon foundations, but another hour was spent searching in vain for a the scratch-dial mentioned in Cole for Chalton, again to no avail. (Later enquiries were made of the local history contact for the church who knew nothing of such a feature on the church). Having walked from Idsworth along the valley and then across the railway line and up to Chalton, the route back takes in the ridge of the Down, from which there is a great distant view of Idsworth church sitting lonely in its field, surrounded by crops. This view occurs just at the point where you pass a series of Bronze Age tumuli on the very top of the Down and put in the context of such deep time, I couldn’t help but call to mind the scratch-dial on the church there and the tiny fragment of celestial movement that had happened since I set off from there a couple of hours before.

The stretch and compression of an ‘hour’ in the medieval system obviously came to an end with the arrival of the mechanical clock. Or almost came to an end. Occult practitioners however, using traditional grimoires make use of ‘timing’ as an essential component for successfully conjuring spirits. The ‘hours’ of the day and the night are assigned to particular planets and ruling angels. These ‘hours’ are calculated by dividing the time between sunset and sunrise into twelve equal portions in just the same way as a scratch-dial does. Grimoires were secret things, passed from hand to covetous hand and copied, often badly, by hand. This form of magical timing has origins going back well into antiquity but it was conserved over a long distance of time into 16th and 17th centuries documents and is still observed by practitioners today. It is not surprising to learn that one of the major vectors for the transmission of grimoire texts across Europe was a sparingly educated and magically inclined priesthood for whom these quasi-religious texts were a natural adjunct to their other ritual roles and who were familiar with this flexible approach to time from their daily offices.

Mechanical clocks appeared in this country in the mid-1300s. It took a long time for them to be established but slowly time became more and more fixed. It’s possible to adapt a scratch dial to greater accuracy by lowering and raising the angle of the central ‘stick’ depending on latitude, literally reflecting the angle of the Earth in space, but that requires rather more technical skill than a parish clergyman likely possessed. It is also possible to make them more accurate by making the spacing of the lines less uniform and some later scratch-dials do reflect this but again, this suggests a level of skill that would have to be imported. Scratch-dials fell out of use, they were replaced by clocks on church towers, dividing time regularly and relentlessly.


This article was originally written for a website on walking and folklore. 


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