MEDIEVAL SCRATCH DIALS ON DORSET CHURCHES


St Mary the Virgin . Hilfield . Dorset - Scratch Dial (Keith Salvesen)
St Mary the Virgin . Hermitage . Dorset

Medieval scratch dials were cut into the stones of churches from Saxon times until around 1600, by which time they had been outcompeted by clocks. In the briefest summary, these scratch (or Mass) dials were primitive ways by which a medieval community, mostly uneducated, could tell or (more accurately) keep the time. All that was needed was a hole, a stick, a nail and some sunshine.

The concept of time as we know it did not exist early medieval times. Days were measured by the passage of the sun. Each community would have had its own daily rhythms. The earliest primitive scratch dials on country churches were the first public indicators of the day’s progress, and (later) the times of Mass. Designs gradually became more ambitious and elaborate. Scientific advances produced more technical and accurate dials, for example by graduating the space between the lines (radials) to allow for the declination of the sun; or bending the gnomon to adjust for latitude. Some later dials include decorative details. There’s a great deal more to be said on the topic, and some of it can be found at a new project called GAUDIUM SUB SOLE

Dials are often eroded, damaged, or both

St Andrew . Leigh . Dorset – Scratch Dial

The central hole for the gnomon (or ‘style’) is frequently filled in

St Peter & St Paul . Bishops Caundle . Dorset

Dials, for obvious reasons, are most usually found on the south side of a church. Favoured locations are the porch, the priest’s door, and a S. or SW. facing buttress. In some cases – especially on buttresses – more than one dial was incised. St Mary Bradford Abbas has an unusual example of large, similar dials overlapping. Repairs, as here, are often unsympathetic.

The second image shows a previously unrecorded dial, inverted, that I noticed high up on a corner tower. Stones with dials were often relocated as churches were reshaped and expanded. There’s a good example at CHARMINSTER. I’m beginning to suspect a correlation between a relocation and an inversion, almost as if to make clear the repurposing of the stone from time marker back to masonry.

A significant number of churches have multiple dials. Winterbourne Stoke (Wilts) has between 8 and 12, depending on individual interpretation. Some, including me, are keen to view any round hole as a potential style hole; and any random straight incision as a radial. Multi-dial churches are worth a close inspection. Rimpton has 4 recorded dials: I have visited twice recently and there are undoubtedly 2 more.

St Laurence, Holwell has 3 dials in a group on a buttress. Two are quite large and sophisticated. In the top half of the faintly encircled lower dial, there’s a small more rustic dial as shown in the diagram above (you can just see the style hole on the photo)

St Laurence . Holwell . Dorset

All six churches featured here are in the Three Valleys Benefice

Photos: Keith Salvesen sundails@gaudiumsubsole.org

GARGOYLES . ST ANDREW . YETMINSTER . DORSET


Three excellent gargoyles at the Church of St Andrew, Yetminster, where I was photographing scratch dials and medieval graffiti. There is one gargoyle at each corner of the C15 tower (the fourth was in shadow). These ‘grotesques’ were decorative in its broadest sense, and (unlike the similar hunky punks) also functional. One practical use for a gargoyle – the most usual – was as a water spout. An additional purpose was to protect the church and its precincts by repelling evil. Broadly speaking, the message they gave malevolent spirits was both ‘thou shalt not pass’ (protective) and also ‘get thee hence’ (repellent).

Most gargoyles represent creatures. Some are recognisable (usually with added malice); and others are completely monstrous. Some have both animal and human attributes. There may be disagreeable activity taking place or threatened. Good examples are the two below. In each a small human is attached to a large vicious beast, and in grave peril. In the first, a man is uncomfortably slung below the fanged beast, assessing the very long drop to the ground. In the other, the beast is equally scary and the man, semi-attached, is equally terrified. What evil spirit would take a risk with hexing this awesome (in its original meaning) church?

There’s one additional feature that I noticed only when I saw the images onscreen. In the first, the little man’s penis can be seen, and is obeying the law of gravity. The second it is not so clear-cut (as it were), but the bulge in the groin area may suggest a small and better endowed man. The display of stone genitals on medieval church carvings was yet another way in which evil could be held at bay or sent packing. The sheela-na-gig is the distaff example of the principle.

BOUNDARY STONE, LEIGH, DORSET


The village of Leigh is about 5 miles south of Sherborne. We live at the top of a steepish hill to the north. We must have been past this boundary marker on foot and by car thousands of times over the years. Yet neither of us had ever noticed it until, during a recent rainy walk, my wife pointed it out.

It’s not in itself a particularly interesting stone, but it marks a historic village boundary beside a small and sinuous stream. This is the Wriggle, later to merge with the River Yeo, join the River Parrett, and eventually debouche into the Bristol Channel.

There are no markings on the face of the stone, and I can’t trace any history of it or of similar stones locally. I haven’t found it on old OS maps. All that can be said for certain is that it considerably pre-dates its metal counterpart.

There’s no sense to be made of the cuts on the top of the stone. It’s just one of those random objects in life that one never notices until one does.

HUNKY PUNKS & GARGOYLES


Hunky Punk Rampisham Church Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

HUNKY PUNKS

The image above shows a Hunky Punk. These strangely-named grotesques are found on churches in many areas of the country, especially Late Gothic ones. Usually where there is one hunky punk, there will be several (as with gargoyles). Sometimes, there may be a lone one lurking over a buttress or above a porch.

Hunky Punk Bradford Abbas Church Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

Different regions have different names for these intriguing ornaments. The name hunky punk is associated most strongly with Somerset, and more broadly with Wessex. They range from the dramatically gross to the disconcertingly lurky (see above). There’s nothing anodyne about them.

Wherever they are found, hunky punks all have a common factor: they are distinct from gargoyles. They may be very similar in design and style, but they have different functions. Gargoyles are working grotesques, usually acting as outlets for rainwater on church roofs. A length of lead pipe – or metal or  (occasionally / regrettably) plastic – is the sign of a gargoyle. This usually but not invariably protrudes through the stone mouth.

Gargoyle Nether Compton Church Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

A hunky punk, on the other hand, has a purely decorative function. One might dignify it with the term ‘architectural feature’. But then so is a gargoyle. Confusingly, where several grotesques are found, eg on a tower, only one or two may be functional gargoyles and the others not. Here’s an example where it is easy to tell which is which.  The hunky punk appears to be praying with some distaste; the water drain (non-gargoylic) is separate.**

Hunky Punk Leigh Church Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

There are a number of theories about the purpose of hunky punks, absent a water spout function to make them useful as gargoyles. Symbols of (benign) evil to counterbalance the prevailing piety of the church precincts. Sculpture practice for trainee stonemasons. Caricatures of priests or local people; or perhaps representing Parish folklore .

Hunky Punk Trent Church Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

My current favourite hunky punks are from St Mary’s Charminster. This church deserves a post in its own right, not least because it also has 2 medieval scratch dials (my current project), one of which was moved from the south side and replaced upside-down on the wrong  face of the building.

Hunky Punk Charminster Church Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

While other more distant projects are marking time, I am currently investigating Wessex churches – strictly within prevailing Covid rules, obviously. So there’ll be more posts along these lines in due course, mostly about exterior features.

** This one may be a double bluff. It’s possible that the modern water spout to the side replaces an old pipe that emerged from the clasped hands of the priest, and channelled the rain water even as he prays. On the other hand, the aperture isn’t quite right for that. I need to check that tower again to see if any of the other 3 are water-spouting gargoyles…

Churches: Rampisham – St Michael & All Angels (1); Bradford Abbas – St Mary (2, 3); Nether Compton – St Andrew (4); Leigh – St Andrew (5); Trent – St Andrew (6); Charminster – St Mary (7, 8)

BENCHMARKS: SHERBORNE ABBEY, DORSET


Sherborne Abbey, Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

Sherborne Abbey – The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin – is one of England’s great churches, founded in AD705. The mellow stone beauty of the exterior and the outstanding fan vaulting (let alone its other glories) secure its primacy as a place of worship, of religious and architectural study, and of inspiration for the community it serves.

It also has a clearly incised benchmark, the bathetic subject-matter of this post as foretold in the title. It’s a strangely humble feature to focus on, but the attempted revival of this blog will include such mundanities. More interesting will be the medieval scratch dials (crude early sundials carved on church walls or doorways) that I am currently working on.

Sherborne Abbey, Dorset benchmark 1 (Keith Salvesen)

Sherborne Abbey, Dorset benchmark 2 (Keith Salvesen) Sherborne Abbey, Dorset benchmark 3 (Keith Salvesen)

All photographs © Keith Salvesen

CROSS AND HAND, BATCOMBE, DORSET


Cross-in-Hand (Cross and Hand) Batcombe Dorset Batcombe in the heart of Dorset is a hamlet of farms, cottages, and a tiny medieval church with a fine stone screen. It is also the name of the long hill ridge that rises steeply above it. This is green and flinty Hardy country. Close to the roadside that runs along the top of the ridge is a small battered stone pillar, fairly recently awarded a small protective enclosure by Dorset Council. The spectacular 180º views from this spot on a clear day stretch to the Mendips, the Quantocks, and as far as Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor.

Cross-in-Hand (Cross and Hand) Batcombe Dorset Many sources now describe this Grade II listed pillar as the Cross and Hand (the hand is now completely erased). In Hardy’s ‘Tess’ and locally, this ‘stone shaft with a rough capital, possibly pre-Conquest’ (Pevsner) is known as the Cross-in-Hand.

Cross-in-Hand (Cross and Hand) Batcombe Dorset

The `strange rude monolith’, as Hardy describes it, is a pivotal location in his novel. It is here that Alec d’Urberville makes Tess swear on the stone (as if had profound religious significance) never to tempt him: “put your hand upon that stone hand, and swear that you will never tempt me by your charms or ways.” Later she asks a local shepherd “What is the meaning of that old stone I have passed? Was it ever a Holy Cross?” To which the devastating answer is:  “Cross—no; ‘twer not a cross! ‘Tis a thing of ill-omen, Miss. It was put up in wuld times by the relations of a malefactor who was tortured there by nailing his hand to a post and afterwards hung. The bones lie underneath. They say he sold his soul to the devil, and that he walks at times.” Tess was, in the current meaning of an older phrase, ‘gaslighted’ (or maybe ‘gaslit’).

Cross-in-Hand (Cross and Hand) Batcombe Dorset
There was 70p in small change on the top when I took this photo, proving that some superstitions never die.

EXTRACT FROM OFFICIAL RECORDS

‘Wayside monolithic shaft, with necking and capital. Medieval. Stone monolith of oval form, crudely tapering. It is possible that this shaft belongs to the group of pre-conquest shafts of which the pillar of Eliseg (c6) is the best known; if so the capital must have been cut down. The hand said to have been carved on one face is not traceable.’ (RCHM) Scheduled Ancient Monument Dorset No. 137 / BLB

Additional notes: Ordnance Survey benchmark on the south side

Cross-in-Hand (Cross and Hand) Batcombe Dorset

BENCHMARKS: DOVEDALE, PAUL (CORNWALL) & CHISWICK


This blog being very much a side-project with (mostly) particular themes of minor interest (‘sundials’; ‘trig points’; ‘mazes’) it’s the first thing to make way when other things in life are going on. Very nearly a year passed until I recently posted something here. In truth this blog never really got off the ground at all, as things further afield took up increasing time. Yet it gets a surprising number of hits that are totally unmerited for such an indolent effort. I’m trying to raise my game in a lull resulting from a hurricane-wrecked 5-year research project.

DOVEDALE

Not far south of Hartington, in upper Dovedale, I came across this benchmark when a day’s fishing on the River Dove was washed out by heavy overnight rain. I arrived on the riverbank and found that the previous day’s placid, clear waters had been replaced by an un-fishable brown torrent. My disappointed mood was marginally lifted when, at the base of the right-hand stone of an old stile set beside the river Dove, I spotted a benchmark.

PAUL, CORNWALL

Paul (Breweni or Brewinney in Cornish) is an attractive Cornish village set on the hill above Mousehole. It has plenty of historical and indeed religious significance, including being sacked by the Spanish in a raid in 1595. There is also an intriguing and unusual maze that I wrote about some time ago HERE.

The churchyard has a memorial to ‘Dolly Pentreath’, actually or supposedly the last Cornish speaker (an achievement claimed elsewhere).  The fact that the memorial was put up by Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, might lend some credence until one sees that his career was blemished by some diplomatic dishonesty.

This benchmark at Paul is on the stone pillar of a field gate by the steep road that leads down to Mousehole. The rusty hinge remnants are still there. Also visible are embedded what look to be fossils. There were more on the other stone post (bottom photo). Having assumed them to be fossils, I later remembered that I had seen these before, on Dartmoor. They turned out to be of geological rather than animal origin (but I need to check back to see what they are called…).

ADDENDUM: these apparently calcified creatures are in fact megacrysts and so of geological origin.

CHISWICK HOUSE, LONDON

Time to move from Cornwall to Devonshire (the Duke of…) and Chiswick House, the Burlington family’s fine Palladian London house. On the way to walk round the grounds via the impressive back gate, I noticed a rather modern-looking benchmark on one side. There’s not much more I can add about it – so here it is.

MELBURY BUBB, DORSET: TRIG POINT S5687 & A LIME KILN


TRIG POINT, MELBURY BUBB, DORSET looking roughly east
TRIG POINT, MELBURY BUBB, DORSET looking roughly east

TRIG POINT, MELBURY BUBB, DORSET looking roughly north
TRIG POINT, MELBURY BUBB, DORSET looking roughly north

TRIG POINT, MELBURY BUBB, DORSET top plate  LOCATION & DETAILS

Grid reference ST 59357 06701
OSGB36 Station ST70/T40
Trigpointing UK waypoint TP4762
Pillar
Flush Bracket
3rd Order
Condition good

 

OTHER INFORMATION

MELBURY BUBB is a hamlet on a hillside deep in Hardy country, which the long-distance Hardy Way passes. It has a fine manor house and a Church that is well worth a visit in its own right if you are in the area MELBURY BUBB CHURCH

Lime Kiln Melbury Bubb Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

Close to the Trig Point and in a strip of woodland to the right as you climb uphill along the Hardy Way, you’ll find an old lime kiln cut into a high bank. There is also a hollow way (or SUNKEN LANE) close by. If you have read Rogue Male (or seen the film), you can imagine that the steep banks are where the hero was forced to conceal himself as the evil antagonist closed in on him.

Lime Kiln Melbury Bubb Dorset (Keith Salvesen)

Credits: Trigpointing UK; Google Maps

A BIZARRELY ANACHRONISTIC SUNDIAL IN FRANCE


Take one majestically ruined Viollet-le-Duc castle in central France, and simply add a c21 slate sundial of rather unsatisfactory design, fix it to a medieval wall with badly-chosen B&Q screws, and you get this…  Viollet violated.

Actually, I’m being a bit harsh on it. Looking closely, including at the gnomon, the dial  seems to be home-made by someone who knew what he was doing. The carefully sketched light markings indicate that he (or she) has taken a lot of trouble over it. Had I made it myself, I’d be proud of it. But I might have located somewhere less blatantly out-of-place (and maybe with different screws…).

 

BRITAIN’S OLDEST POST BOX: A GRADE II* CHANCE FIND


On a cold, sunny November day, we went to a local church that was slightly outside our usual territory. The purpose was to photograph the medieval mass dial on the porch – or, as it turned out, dials in the plural. Beneath a neat dial from roughly 1600, we found the traces of an apparently older and much more sketchy dial. Below that, the possibility of a  hint of a dial -possibly an original practice run. More of those another time.

As we drove home on a different road, we had a ‘stop the car’ moment. For there, outside a row of old cottages, was a small post or pillar box. Not only that, it was octagonal, Victorian, and worthy of immediate investigation. The location is at Holwell, Dorset – rather more of an area than a defined village. Its Church, St Laurences, is in its own hamlet known as The Borough, down a no-through-road. The box is actually at Barnes Cross near The Borough and Cornford Bridge, National Grid Ref: ST 69308 11775. 

The box turned out to be a wonderful find. Plainly, it was an early one. Research when we got home revealed that is is in fact the oldest box still in everyday use in Britain. According to HE, it is dated to 1853 and was made (as the box itself proclaims) by a Gloucester firm, John N. Butt & Co. Roadside boxes were only introduced in 1852, so this one is a very early example. There are apparently two other extant boxes made by them, one at the National Postal Museum in London and the other a private box at a hospital in Plymouth.  Standardisation of design was not brought in until 1859 – before that, designs varied from area to area.

  

The box is grade II* listed in 1987, designated thus for its ‘legacy record’. Despite the listing, the box became badly dilapidated, until in 2104 a restoration campaign by the local community succeeded. The Daily Mail carried an article with ‘before, during, and after’ images. The box had to be stripped before being fully refurbished to its former glory. 

             

This very early box has a number of interesting original features, most of all the vertical letter opening, the royal insignia, and the fact that the makers advertise their skills twice over. The most important modern feature is of course the collection notice in its inset – proof that it is business as usual 165 years after the box was installed.

I have referred to this box as a post box, with a nod to pillar box  (which is the name I grew up using). I realise some prefer postbox in one word. And clearly the correct description in the 1850s was letterbox, as shown printed on this example. But I imagine that in those early postal days houses did not have what we now usually call letterboxes, i.e. holes in the front door of a house, so there was no cause for confusion.

Credits: Historic England; Dorset OPC (Online Parish Clerks); BNPS Dorset Press Agency; Daily Mail. All photos apart from the 2 restoration ones are mine.