‘UNEXPECTED TIMES’: A SUNDIAL ON THE PONTE VECCHIO


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Florence in January.  -8°C at night, zero during the day – but sunny enough in the middle of the day to be able to have coffee or even lunch outside. Apart from the Uffizi, no queues for anywhere. Most significant places on the tourist trail almost to oneself. Despite the cold, there is no frost: the air is so dry that the pavements, piazzas and even the cars are quite clear of frozen white crystals. By the river I caught the electric flash of a male kingfisher flying up from the water to an overhanging bush, his hunting perch. I watched him as he scanned the water below, occasionally diving down and returning to the same branch. Twice, I could see the glint of a tiny fish in his beak. 

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Since I was 17 I have been lucky enough to visit Florence quite often, not least because Mrs RH regularly goes there on business, and I am a keen ‘trailing spouse’. Over the years I don’t know how often I have crossed the Ponte Vecchio – or even simply walked to the mid-point to admire the views up and down river from the open areas between the pricey shops. This time I was walking the length of the Vasari corridor that connects the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno. A section runs straight over the bridge and then passes across the facade of Santa Felicita, into which the Medici family could sneak from the corridor to a large private balcony for spiritual refreshment. Passing the middle of the west side of the bridge, in the ‘tourist photo opp’ gap where Cellini’s bust adds to the photogenic view, I have never before looked upwards.

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Here, on the roof of a shop, is an ancient sundial, supported by a white marble pillar. An eroded and almost illegible engraving below the pillar records that in 1333, floods caused the bridge to collapse and that “twelve years later, as pleased the Commune, it was rebuilt with this ornamentation”. The sundial itself, with its columnar divisions reminiscent of a rose window, marks the CANONICAL HOURS. The gnomon’s shadow indicates the hour of the day. If the sundial is the ‘ornamentation’ to which the inscription refers, then it is around 650 years old.

If you look closely at the pillar, you’ll see, halfway up the south face of the hexagonal column, a lizardsundial-ponte-vecchio-florence-1

Seeing the sundial for the first time ever, yet in such a familiar place was a reminder that Florence is a city that demands great attention as one walks through the streets. Many buildings, even unassuming ones, have fine adornments high up that will catch the eye… but only if you are looking out for them. 

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A PUZZLING SUNDIAL IN THE PYRÉNÉES-ORIENTALES


VILLEFRANCHE-DE-CONFLENT is a small medieval walled town in Catalan country. It is watched over by Fort Liberia, one of VAUBAN‘s massive defensive constructions in this historically strategic area. The town is charming, and additionally famous for being the start of the ‘Train Jaune’, a picturesque narrow-gauge railway that climbs high into the Pyrénées. The amazing altitude rise is from 1250 ft at Villefranche to 5000 ft at the track’s summit just above the village of Mont Louis (which has its own Vauban fort) 

Double sundial, Villefranche-de-Conflent, Pyrénées-Orientales

The sundial above is high up on a house in the church square. It doesn’t exactly draw the eye, and would be very easy to miss. It’s on the house next to the Mairie (right, with the Catalan flag), below the small top windows.

Villefranche-de-Conflent - Sundial

Villefranche-de-Conflent - Sundial

TWO DIALS IN ONE

The main dial is etched and painted on cement, with roman numerals and showing hours, halves and quarters. The long gnomon is attached beneath a small sculpted head from which sun rays radiate – a simple representation of a solar deity. Above the head can be seen numbers, of which only 11 and 8 at the start, and 3 at the end can be made out with any certainty. Possibly, it is a date: the dial (which is not ancient) is otherwise undated and it is very hard to guess its age. I can find no explanation for the initials DS (top left, Gothic font) and ER (top right, normal font). 

The small dial-within-a-dial shows the hours only, with arabic numerals. The gnomon points straight down. I am unsure of its purpose as a supplementary dial on the same plane, but I hope to find out.

Villefranche-de-Conflent - Sundial

INSCRIPTION

The words “COM MES SOL FA MES BE ESCRIC” are Catalan and mean roughly “When it is sunny, I write (show the time) well”. This rather charming inscription was apparently added around 2000 by the village pastor.

Credit: for information, Michel Lalos, who has compiled a comprehensive illustrated record of the sundials of the Pyrénées-Orientales.

A HANDSOME & COMPLEX SUNDIAL IN NORMANDY


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This sundial is something rather special. This decorative dial is both elegant and very complex. It must have taken a long time to devise and lay out accurately. It stands in the extensive grounds of the elegant Abbey Church of St Georges de Boscherville in Normandy. I managed to get hold of a small pamphlet in the Abbey bookshop – it wasn’t on display, and I had to go back to collect it once they found one. Even then I failed to understand the sundial properly, and not simply because of my rusty but workable French. I’m not even going to attempt to describe it, but it photographs well in its picturesque setting, and I have included a shot of the explanatory plaque at the end for the science-minded.

One fact I learnt is that until WWII, France was on Greenwich Meantime. During the occupation, the Germans changed the time zone to Central European time, a practice that has remained ever since.

St Martin de Boscherville Sundial 1.1 1St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 1St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 2

St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 3St Martin de Boscherville Sundial 1. 1 St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 4 St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 5 St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 6 St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 7

Does this help?St Georges de Boscherville Sundial 1.1. 8

JUMIEGES ABBEY: AN ELABORATE EARLY SUNDIAL


Mass (Scratch) Sundial, Jumieges Abbey, France 1

A picnic lunch at the Abbey of Jumièges, Normandy, has much to commend it – not least tranquility and a stunning view. As we sat enjoying the sunshine on our white bench, we both noticed something unusual on the nearest tower, something not mentioned in anything we had read about the Abbey. On the south wall below the 4 levels of arcaded towers you’ll see in the header image a small red item pointing down at 45º. A gnomon – and where there’s a gnomon, there’s a sundial (although the reverse is often not the case). So we went to investigate.

Mass (Scratch) Sundial, Jumieges Abbey, France 3

The Abbaye de Jumièges was a Benedictine monastery founded in 654AD. In the c9, the original abbey was burned down by Vikings, then rebuilt. A new and larger Abbey was consecrated in 1067, and it was further enlarged in the c13. Restoration work was carried out in the late c16. Subsequently, a vast sundial dated 1660 was crudely carved in the south face of the tower.

Mass (Scratch) Sundial, Jumieges Abbey, France 4

The primitive design and execution of the sundial is rather at odds with the architectural precision of the stonework and the daring of the conceit of  building a hexagonal tower on two square ones, and topping it off with a circular tower… just because they could. The rustic sundial has more in common with the medieval Mass or Scratch sundials on churches, primitive devices that originally evolved simply to indicate the time of the next Mass, with the Priest moving a stick into the appropriate hole on the wall to mark the forthcoming canonical hour. From being an ‘event marker’, the addition of a gnomon and roughly scratched numerals placed higher on a church wall would later provide a community with a way to mark the hours – at least when the sun shone.

A rough medieval scratch dial above a church door near Epernay (sans gnomon)France sundial

Longburton Church, Dorset: a more sophisticated scratch dial high on the Ham stone south wall – ?c16Longburton Church, Dorset: scratch sundial

Returning to Jumièges, here is a closer look at the sundial, with embellishments that seem to have been carved freehand and endearingly ineptly for such a splendid and august building. Yet the time markers have clearly been carved with precision. My only negative comment on this exuberant and enjoyable timepiece is the modern gnomon that looks completely out of place to me. Maybe it’s the colour that’s the problem. Or the flat utilitarian blade of metal. Anyway, without glimpsing it from our picnic spot we would never have seen that side of the tower, and we would have missed an unusual treat.

Mass (Scratch) Dial, Jumieges Abbey, France 5Mass (Scratch) Dial, Jumieges Abbey, France 2Mass (Scratch) Dial, Jumieges Abbey, France 7

All images: RH

 

ROCK FORMATIONS AT THURLESTONE, DEVON (1)


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A long weekend spent at Thurlestone, Devon for a family event – a cheerful one – meant time to explore an unfamiliar area. And the rocks on the beach were quite unlike any we had seen before; certainly unlike anything on our part of the Dorset coast, 100 miles or so to the west. So I took some photos. Having no geological knowledge, I can’t say if this is part of the real – or even the flexibly tourist office-defined – “Jurassic Coast”, but I suspect not. Here are some of the strange bumpy many-hued formations.

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CHINESE NEW YEAR AT CHISWICK HOUSE


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Chinese New Year was celebrated at Chiswick House with a spectacular display of large and colourful inflatable animals from around the world. The same display had previously been used at Longleat. We watched them being installed; and once the event had been opened, it was the perfect place to take children as night fell.

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RAMSGATE HARBOUR, KENT


These photographs of Ramsgate Harbour were taken on a bright September day as we went on a 3-generational family seal boat trip, and on our return. Ramsgate Harbour 1 Ramsgate Harbour 2 Ramsgate Harbour 3 Ramsgate Harbour 4 Ramsgate Harbour 5 Ramsgate Harbour 6 Ramsgate Harbour 7

The photo below shows Pugin’s home The Grange, now a Landmark Trust property where we were staying for a family occasion. To the right is St Augustine’s, the church designed by Pugin and completed after his death by his son Edward. It has a nice walled garden, but overlooks the now-defunct ferry terminal, which slightly mars the charm…Ramsgate Harbour 8 Ramsgate Harbour 9 Ramsgate Harbour 10 Ramsgate Harbour 11 Ramsgate Harbour 12

HOUND TOR & AN INFORMAL DARTMOOR LETTERBOX


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Hound Tor is a windswept rocky outcrop on Dartmoor at 414m / 1358ft ASL. It watches over the Grimspound, an intriguing bronze-age circular enclosure with the remains of 24 houses, some inhabited until medieval times. It will have a post in its own right in due course. We investigated both with our granddaughter Berry last August during a short holiday together (grandparental treat!) on Dartmoor.Hound Tor 8

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After exploring the Grimspound, there is no doubt about the next achievement to tackle: a steep stony path leads invitingly from the walls to the top of the Tor. As you climb, the Grimspound gets smaller below you. Hound Tor 23Hound Tor 26Hound Tor 3

Berry was not the only wild creature on the moor…Hound Tor 22

AN EXCITING DISCOVERY THAT WAS DISAPPOINTING

As we climbed, we noticed that the rocks all around were embedded with fossils. Or so we believed. We took lots of photos of these amazing calcified creatures that by some strange process were to be found at nearly 1500ft. Only later, when we did a bit of research online, did we find out the disappointing truth: not fossils, but megacrysts. The technical explanation is as follows:

The main exposure at the Tor is of megacryst granite (also known as “Giant Granite” or “Big-Feldspar Granite”). It is probably from near the roof area of the batholith. The feldpars are of perthitic orthoclase that is porphyroblastic (later replacive crystals) in origin and not phenocrysts (large crystals that have developed in the magma). In some places the southwest England granite megacrysts have been seen to develop into aplite (fine-grained quartz-feldpar veins of late origin), which is possible for porphyroblasts (developing by replacement after the veins) but not for phenocrysts (early and which should be cut through by the veins).

 Hound Tor, Dartmoor. Fossils? No, Megacrysts Hound Tor, Dartmoor. Fossils? No, Megacrysts Hound Tor, Dartmoor. Fossils? No, Megacrysts

A DISAPPOINTING DISCOVERY THAT WAS EXCITING

Tupperware at nearly 1500ft? The plastic rubbish left behind by some idle picnicker? But no… Berry spent some time exploring the crannies of the rockiest outcrops, and in the process made her next ‘Letterbox’ discovery… [The previous year’s find is HERE]

Hound Tor 6Hound Tor 13Hound Tor 20Hound Tor 30

Berry was not the first person to discover the box, which had been left by a girl from Surrey, with a message encouraging people to write in the notebook inside. This was already well-filled with the names, addresses, messages and drawings of previous explorers. There was also a strange mix of ‘souvenir’ items people had left – a car park ticket from Alton Towers, a ‘poppy day’ poppy, a couple of smoothed-out sweet wrappers, a button, and other such debris that walkers might find in their pockets… So Berry added a 1p coin, and added her contribution to the notebook. It may not have been an official Dartmoor Letterbox, but it was a lovely idea to have hidden it for others to enjoy.

Hound Tor 18Hound Tor 17Hound Tor 29Hound Tor 15Hound Tor 31

Credit: photos 4, 5, first megacryst, and all agile activity by Berry

SANDWICH SHARING: IMAGES FROM A CINQUE PORT


Sandwich is a cinque port, along with Hastings, New Romney, Hythe and Dover – we had some warm family disagreements discussions about these until someone managed to get a phone signal and look them up. The town has a large number of medieval buildings, and we enjoyed a quick look round recently when we were staying nearby.

THE FISHER GATE (1384) on the quaysideSandwich - The Fisher Gate 1384

THE BARBICAN (and toll house)Sandwich - the Barbican

THE TOLL TABLE, 1905

Although viable vehicles using an internal combustion engine had only been in existence for about 6 years (and were few and far between), steam vehicles were not uncommon. It’s surprising to learn the variety of transport methods still catered for in post-Victorian England. I’d like to have possessed a ‘wain’. And a ‘chaise’, for that matter.

Sandwich - Toll table

RIVER STOUR at the quayside, with the swing bridge road that now leads to the BarbicanSandwich - River Stour

IS THIS FOR REAL? (looking at the modern screws, I concluded not)Sandwich - 'nothing happened'

ST PETER’S CHURCH (C13 / 14), now in the care of the Churches Conservation TrustSandwich - St Peter's Church c13 : 14

MEMORIAL IN ST PETER’S CHURCH with ambiguous tributeSandwich - St Peter's - Memorial

SANDWICH WEAVERS (1500)  a home and workshop used by Dutch workers in the c16Sandwich Weavers, 1500Sandwich Weavers 1500  Sandwich Weavers 1500

THE SWING BRIDGE OVER THE STOUR

The quayside was used for army embarkations for wars with FranceSandwich - Swing Bridge over River Stour

Too good to miss (from a Kent Events website)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 

TALKING ‘JACKSON POLLOCKS’: PAINTING ON SILK


This sequence of paintings on textured silk is an anomaly for this blog, concerning neither wildlife, countryside, buildings or any of the other random subjects usually featured. I just liked them. I wonder what you will make of them…

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If you like the ‘pictures’ in these photos, then you may enjoy the tie I will be wearing for our son’s wedding next month – a unique creation hand painted onto silk, despite which it cost an astonishingly small amount. And if you hate it, I’m still going to wear it anyway because although it’s not a tie I’d ever have imagined wearing (and I wear them only very rarely these days) I love it!

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