A gnomon on the esplanade

FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT know, a gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow.

The gnomon on the Esplanade at Ventnor

In 1851, Sir Thomas Brisbane (1773-1860), who gave his name to a city in Australia, donated a tall gnomon to the town of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. In sunny conditions, this object casts a shadow on a line marked on the pavement at noon GMT (1 pm BST). Sir Thomas had spent some time in Ventnor during the mid-19th century, and sadly his daughter Eleanor Australia MakDougall Brisbane died in Ventnor in 1852 at the young age of 29.

As we are discovering during our visit to the Isle of Wight, the sun does not always shine in Ventnor (or anywhere else on the island). Recognising this problem that renders the gnomon useless when the sun is not shining, the town erected a short clock tower near to the gnomon in 1870. This clock was rebuilt in 2001. It bears a plaque commemorating Fred Blake (1924-2001), who, along with his father (Adolphus) and grandfather (James), were: “… proud to maintain this barometer for over 120 years”.

We did not see the gnomon working because of cloudy weather conditions, and the two faces of the clocks displayed different times and neither of them appeared to be working. The barometer seemed to be working. It is curious features such as the gnomon that help make towns on the English coast endlessly fascinating.

A curious sundial

Standing on the central stone at noon, the person’s shadow is cast on the stone marked ‘XII’

AN INTERESTING SUNDIAL in the gardens of Blickling Hall, Norfolk consists of numbered stones laid out around a larger central stone. When someone stands on the central stone, his or her shadow will fall on the stone bearing the hour of the day.. This is an example of an ‘anellematic’ sundial.

The triumph of hope over experience

Cambridge, England

IN A COUNTRY SUCH AS ENGLAND, the profusion of sundials seems almost ironic given how often the sky is grey and the sun is hidden. Since the year 2000, the average monthly sunshine ranges from less than 50 hours to a little over 250 hours per month (https://www.statista.com/statistics/584898/monthly-hours-of-sunlight-in-uk/), the variation reflecting the different seasons of the year.  The average number of daylight hours varies from 8 in January to 16.5 in July (http://projectbritain.com/weather/sunshine.htm). Using these figures and a bit of basic arithmetic, one can estimate that there is sunshine for about 20% of the daylight hours on an average January day, and about 89% of the daylight hours on an average July day. Roughly speaking, a sundial, which can only be of use when the sun is shining, is likely to be helpful for telling the time in England between 20% and 89% of daylight hours on an average day. Nevertheless, there is a great number of these partially usable timepieces in existence in gardens and on buildings in England. The figures I have calculated make the words of my opening sentence only slightly less drastic than they seem. Yet, relying on sundials as timepieces is, as my wife pointed out, a good interpretation of the words of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), quoted by his biographer James Boswell (1740-1795):

“The triumph of hope over experience.”

This was not said in relation to sundials, but to:

“…Johnson’s hearing of a man who had remarried soon after the death of a wife to whom he had been unhappily married.” (https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/hope-over-experience.html)

In other words, enjoy the sight of sundials in their many shapes and sizes but do not become wedded to them if knowing the time is of importance to you.