The Church Sundial at Litlington
By W. OLIVER
THE vertical sundial beside the south doorway of
Litlington Church is commonly regarded as a typical example of the scratch-dials
that were incised on the building-stones of churches in the Middle Ages.
Actually, however, this dial is most exceptional, if not unique.
In the matter of workman-ship it may be classed with the scratch-dials, as its
hour-lines and enclosing semi-circle are incised directly on the surface of an
actual building-stone beside the church doorway. But in design it is quite
unlike any ordinary scratch-dial either in Sussex or elsewhere (and as
scratch-dials have been found on about 1,400 churches in Britain the rarity of
the Litlington dial may be appreciated).
The fundamental difference between this Litlington dial and other old incised
dials (including Saxon ones, such as that at Bishop-ston) lies in the spacing of
the hour-lines. The markings on Saxon sundials and medieval scratch-dials are
quite incapable of measuring time accurately throughout the year on the modern
clock system. They were never intended to do so. Designed and made before the
introduction of mechanical clocks into England, these primitive dials told the
time on the canonical system: the principal lines on a typical Saxon dial or a
typical medieval scratch-dial mark the times of certain services—None, Terce,
There is, I think, good reason to suppose that the additional lines found on
certain dials of these types were added at a later date (after the twelve-hour
clock system of time-measurement came into fairly general use here) in an
attempt, probably, to adapt the existing dials to the new system.
Plenty of medieval scratch-dials, and a few Saxon dials (e.g., Bishopston) have
a full complement of thirteen lines intended to divide the span of daylight into
twelve portions. These "hour"-lines are spaced equally round the semi-circles of
the dials, but they do not register the hours with consistent ac-curacy
throughout the year. Some measure of compensation for the discrepancies can be
made by bending the style or pointer to different angles at the different
seasons; but even then the dial is not an accurate timekeeper on the modern
The Litlington dial, however, behaves in an entirely different manner. Here the
hour-lines, instead of being spaced equally round the semi-circle, are graduated
on a scientific principle, identical to that on which a modern scientific
vertical sundial is based.
This graduation means that the lines get closer and closer together as one
approaches the noon-line position. Moreover, unlike all ordinary medieval
scratch-line or Saxon dials, which were intended for use with a simple pointer
thrust in the central style-hole, the Litlington dial is constructed with a long
channel (over the noon-line position) which was clearly intended to take a
slanting gnomon (like that of a modern wall-sundial) set at the angle suited to
the latitude of Litlington.
This gnomon would enable the specially graduated dial to tell the time with
reasonably consistent accuracy throughout the year.
SCM Volume 12 1938 Page 529