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Learn a lesson from this dial,

Dwell not on the past;

Greet the present with a smile,

For future cannot last.’

Many will argue that the first use of a sundial began way back in prehistoric time in the form of the stone rows, circles and menhirs which acted as astrological calendars. Indeed what is thought to be the earliest sundial can be found at the 5,000 year old Neolithic passage tomb at Knowth in Ireland. Since then many civilisations have used sundials to tell the time and gradually over time they became architectural features which began to be used on churches. One of the earliest church sundials is that which is built upside down into the wall of Byland village church which has upon it the following inscription: ‘SVMARTLETHAN HVSCARL – ME FECIT‘ which translates as ‘Sumarlethi’s Housecarl made me’, this has been dated to Saxon times, (Henslow, 1914, p.8). However, there is another contender and that is a simple stone pillar with a scratch dial (one that is carved into a stone) incised on it which sits in the churchyard at Clynnog-fawr in Gwynedd. This is thought to date to around the eighth or ninth centuries, (Daniel, 2004, p.8).

The Saxon sundials are known as ‘tide’dials’ because at this time the daylight hours were divided into four three-hour periods known as ‘tides’. Tide dials normally consisted of a simple stone slab set into the south wall of the church that had an incised horizontal line, one end being dawn and the other dusk. A vertical line was then drawn down from the centre of the horizontal line which marked the noon division along with two further lines running at 45º form the central node. This arrangement effectively gave four tides with five time points each of which corresponded with Mass times. Thus giving; 6.00am (Prime), 9.00am (Terce), 12.00am (Sext), 3.00pm (None) and 6.00pm (Vespers). The actual pointer or gnomon that cast the shadow which indicated the time was always calibrated at noon on Midsummer’s Day thus always giving an accurate reading.

A Simple Saxon Tide Dial

Having once installed a tide dial it then meant that the church bell could be rang at the time required to mark the canonical hours. Not only did the tolling of the bell mark these times it also informed anyone within earshot as to the time of day, this was particularly useful for those working in the nearby fields, (Friar, 1996, p. 436). To know the time at another moment of the day people only had to look at the dial on the church providing that it was visible and there was enough daylight to get a shadow.

During the medieval period the understanding of astrology let to the sundial becoming more accurate as the markings took into account smaller time divisions and seasonal variation, they also became known as ‘scratch dials‘. The shape also changed to that of a circular nature and many examples had the 9.00am line cut deeper so that it was more pronounced than the other lines. The reasoning behind this was that it marked the time when mass was said on a Sunday and for this very reason the sundials also became known as ‘mass-dials‘. Unfortunately both Maths and Physics were not my best subjects at school, firstly because I found them boring and secondly I could never hear what was being taught from the corridor where I spent most of my time. Therefore should anyone want further information as to the calculations used in calibrating later sundials I can thoroughly recommend the website of The British Sundial Society (follow link opposite) where all is explained – and good luck.

If anyone had asked my why church sundials fell out of use I would have said because of the invention of the mechanical clock but it appears not. One has to look back to the Puritan Reformation of the 1600s when liturgical changes meant there was no need to mark the times of masses and so the mass-dial became superfluous. Many of the existing dials were left to decay or were covered over by later restoration work never to be seen again. However, this was not the complete demise of the church sundial as some were erected as architectural church features and funded by bequests so that they should act as memorials to the deceased. I suppose that if you wanted to be remembered by your family and friends there could be no better way of doing so than having your name inscribed on something that was guaranteed to draw peoples attention – a sun dial on a church.

In some areas there are enough surviving church sundials to enable dedicated ‘sundial trails’ to be established which take people on a ‘hunt’ around the churches of a specific county or area. Sadly you would be hard pushed in South Devon where in 1961 it was suggested that out of 232 churches only 64 had surviving sundials. In North Devon it was better with 70 churches out of 169 proudly sporting their sundials. Within the boundary of the  Dartmoor National Park there are 32 churches of which 10 still have examples of sundials, some dating back to the 16/1700s. That number could possibly rise to 11 if one takes into account Sheepstor church which has a carving that Baring Gould considered may have been part of an early sundial, (Baring Gould, 1982, p.228). This ratio is higher than the average for South Devon and I suppose a ‘trail’ could be established to visit them, in fact that’s a good idea, I will start one right now – done, The Dartmoor Sundial Trail can be found – HERE.

It is considered that the earliest sundial to be found incorporated into the structure of a Devon church is the one at Bampton which dates to 1586. On Dartmoor the earliest known example of a church sundial is 1624 and this can be found at Brentor. The Dartmoor sundials are made from a variety of materials including slate, granite, cement, metal and even wood, all of which have been subjected to centuries of erosion from the moorland weather and the attentions of various lichens.

Location Date Motto/Text
Brentor 1624 Walter Batten
Chagford ? Unreadable
Cornwood 176? Unreadable
Dunsford ? None
Islington ? Vigila Oraque
Manaton ? None
Mary Tavy 1707/09 None
Sourton ? Unreadable
Throwleigh 1663 O Beata Solitudo. A Sola Beatitudo mihi Opidum Carcer est et Corona Manuum Opus Nos teum Citopede Præterit Æt.
Widecombe ? Unreadable

Some counties actually have devised a ‘Sundial Tour’ which takes visitors around the various sundials in the area, although there are only the above examples on Dartmoor they too would make an excellent tour. By visiting each one, a person would have crossed the length and breadth of the moor whilst travelling through some of the most picturesque landscapes to be seen. Not only is the scenery outstanding but the actual churches are found in some of the most idyllic and unspoilt villages on the moor, all with fascinating histories. Should anyone wish to embark on such a venture then opposite is a suggested route which encompasses all the known sundials:

Baring-Gould, S. 1982 A Book of Dartmoor, Wildwood House, London.

Daniel, C. J. H. 2004. Sundials, Princes Risborough: Shire Publications Ltd.

Henslow, T. G. W., 1914. Sundial Booke, London: J. J. Keliher and Co.

Friar, S. 1996. A Companion to the English Parish Church, Stroud: Sutton Publishing.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment

  1. Dear Sir

    I can see a possible problem with your picture of a “simple Saxon tide dial”. The sun, rising in the East would cast a shadow pointing West. A sundial on a South wall would therefore have Prime at the left of your picture and Vespers at the right, rather than the other way round, as you have shown it. Likewise Terce and None. Of course Sext would stay where it was.

    Best wishes

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