The majority of churches have no integral sundial. Those that do are usually content with one; some may supplement that with a standing sundial in the churchyard. Very few have three sundials that are integral to the building itself and to its history. The small church of Litlington East Sussex is one such. It also has a large benchmark on the porch, and three superb bells dating from the early c15. The main sundial is easy to spot; the other two are far less visible. I spent sometime looking for them in vain, until the church warden took pity on me. But (*spoiler alert*) whoever would expect to find sundials low down on a north wall? They deserve a post in their own right, which will form part 2. They are so far undocumented as far as I can see, except locally.
There are 3 features that immediately stand out: the deep ‘furrow’ at 12 noon; the confusing style / pointer holes; and in particular the carefully graduated hour markings.
A REMARKABLE DIAL
W. Oliver makes several points in his article, which distilled come to this:
- This is a scratch dial typical of Saxon times and the middle ages, incised on the building stones
- The design (for the period) is “most exceptional, if not unique” among the 1400 recorded church scratch dials
- Other dials have equally spaced hour-lines that cannot measure time accurately, and certainly not year-long (though pointer adjustments could be made to compensate)
- These were primarily intended to indicate the 5 Canonical hours for prayer, not time
- Extra lines were sometimes added, as time measurement became more sophisticated
- At Litlington, exceptionally, the hour-line spacing is ‘scientific’ to enable accuracy
- The lines are carefully graduated down to and up from 12 noon
- This scientific approach is very much as seen on modern vertical sundials
- The usual hole for a style / pointer is supplemented by the deeper groove at noon
- This suggests there was at some stage a slanting gnomon, as found on modern wall dials
- This could have been set to the latitude of Litlington to ensure year-round accuracy
- The Litlington scratch dial may in fact be the only one able to tell the time properly
DATING THE DIAL
W. Oliver does not give a date for the dial, other than ‘Middle Ages’ (it’s clearly not as old as Saxon). In a website called https://www.bestofengland.com the entry for this church states “Outside there is still a 13th century sundial on the porch”. This dating seems to have caught on and appears in e.g. Tripadvisor descriptions.
The local website http://www.litlington.info/st-michael-the-archangel-church-litlington says “Outside, on the porch, is a 15th century scientific sundial…” Given the sophistication of the Litlington dial, the first date seems clearly wrong and the second must be the preferred date. It also fits in with date of the installation of the earliest bell – perhaps a time of general improvements to the church. Even so, in the light of W. Oliver’s analysis, the dial shows an extraordinary understanding of the principles of recording time accurately that is apparently absent in the 1399 other instances of scratch dials in the country. The British Sundial Society has a short entry (see below) for this dial (and none for the other two at the ‘back’ of this church, mentioned earlier), including a reference to a polar gnomon. No mention of a possible date, but I take ‘transitional’ to mean between the era of marking the Canonical Hours and the gradual move to a 12 / 24 hour clock as the standard for time-telling.
The brief entry states “The dial can be seen to the right of the porch. All hour lines 6am – 6pm, but no numbers or any trace that there ever were any. Lines correctly delineated for a polar gnomon. No trace of old lines, so possibly not a re-cut mass dial. 310 diam. semicircle. Transitional dial? Ref. C Daniel, Sundials, Shire Album 176,1986, p5 Location 50°47’50″N, 0°9’34″E; National Grid: TQ 523 020″
The illustration to W. Oliver’s article
Any comments about this remarkable dial would be welcome.
Research as specified / linked. * = Sussex County Magazine. The Litlington website entry is as recorded by the Eastbourne Church Recording Group between 2007/2009. All photos Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour except as indicated