A numerical oddity in Cornwall

TRERICE HOUSE IN Cornwall was built mainly between 1570 and 1573. It is one of the loveliest National Trust (‘NT’) properties in the county and one of my top ten. In one of the upper rooms there is an ornate bas-relief above the fireplace. The top of this bears the following:


It is clearly a date in mostly Roman numerals, (i.e., 1573). However, this date has several odd features.

‘CCCCC’ is 500, but usually abbreviated to ‘D’ in Roman numerals. There is a surplus of colons (‘:’) and instead of ending in a Roman numeral, there is the Arabic numeral ‘3’.  Or is it the symbol for a serpent, rather than a ‘3’? It is a curiously shaped 3: it is widest at the top and tapers towards its lower end.

The NT volunteer offering information in the room with this curious date suggested three possible explanations for this peculiar form of the date above the fireplace. One is that the creator of this date miscalculated the amount of space, and instead of ending the date in ‘: III’, used the Arabic ‘3’ to fit in the last part of the date. Had he used ‘D’ instead of the unusual ‘CCCCC’, there would have been plenty of space to fit in the entire date using only Roman numerals. Another explanation offered is that the ‘3’ is really a stylised serpent, a symbol of wisdom often associated with Queen Elizabeth I, during whose reign the house was built.

3 or a serpent?

The last explanation was provided by a builder, who had visited Trerice some weeks before us. He suggested that the ‘3’ was added to indicate that the building works were supposed to have been completed in 1570, but had finished 3 years later than expected; the builders were running behind schedule.

Whatever the explanation of the curiously written date, and you might have another theory, Trerice is well worth a visit.

Ten instead of twelve


AT FIRST SIGHT, this clock, on the esplanade overlooking the seashore at Folkestone in Kent, looks unexceptional. But look again, and you will see that it is missing the figures ’11’ and ’12’. It is a decimal clock forming part of an artwork.

There are as you know 24 hours in a day and of these twelve are usually displayed on a clock face. For a few years during the French Revolution, it was decided to divide the day into ten hours instead of the usual 24. This was not all: the decimal hour was divided into 100 decimal minutes, each of which consisted of 100 decimal seconds. Midnight became 0 in decimal time, and 1 in decimal time was 2.24 am in the 24 hour system, 2 occurred at 4.48 am, 3 at 7.12 am, and so on. This attempt at revolutrionising time did not last for long in France. It was abandoned in 1805.

The French were not pioneers in using decimal time. They were preceded by the Chinese, who ceased using it in favour of the 24 hour system in 1645.

The decimal clock in Folkestone is one of ten in the town, which were created by Ruth Ewan as part of an artwork named “We could have been anything that we wanted to be”. The Tate Gallery website noted: “The commission comprised ten decimal clocks of different designs installed around the seaside town of Folkestone in Kent. All the clocks were displayed publicly, some in very prominent positions such as the town hall, and others that had to be either assiduously sought out or happened upon by chance, such as those found in a pub or a local taxi. With each clock, Ewan replaced the dials and mechanism to achieve the decimal regulation of time.”

The example, which we saw near a Victorian bandstand on the Esplanade has a decimal clock on one side and a regular one on the other side.