Look, no hands

WE VISITED TWO churches in Suffolk, and inside them we spotted three things that particularly interested us. The first church is in Cavendish, The Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin. Standing on a hill above the village, its construction dates from 1300 and was largely completed by 1485. Some restoration work was carried out in the 19th century. One of the two things that fascinated us in this church is affixed to the inside of the north wall. It is a bas-relief depicting the Crucifixion. It is a reredos of Flemmish make, created in the 16th century. It is framed in a Victorian surround designed by Ninian Comper (1864-1960) in 1895. The sculpted reredos was brought to the church from the private chapel of the hymn writer Athelstan Riley (1858-1945) in London, following his death.

Cavendish church

The other curiosity in this church, which has memorials to the philanthropists and local parishioners Baroness Sue Ryder and Baron Leonard Cheshire, is on a wall just behind the 19th century wooden pulpit within arm’s reach of the preacher. It is an hourglass, looking like a large egg-timer, which the priest could use to time his sermon. I had never seen such a thing in a church. Less curious but also fairly unusual are the 13 wooden crucifixes on the interior walls of the bell tower. These were made from wood salvaged from the Western Front during WW1 and each one commemorates one of the men from Cavendish who were killed in the conflict.

The other church we visited on our recent trip to Suffolk was St Mary in Stoke by Nayland, which was sometimes painted by John Constable (1776-1837), who was born nearby in East Bergholt. Built in Perpendicular Gothic style between 1300 and 1481 it is very majestic, like a small cathedral. The church is full of interesting monuments including many fine brasses. It was one of the funerary monuments that particularly intrigued us: the Lady Anne Windsor monument. Anne lived from about 1568 until 1615. A stone carving depicts her lying with her head on a pillow. At her feet, there is a carving of a kneeling man, Anne’s son. By her head, two carvings depict a pair of kneeling women, Anne’s daughters. Look closely at this pair and you will notice that their hands have been broken off. Their arms are merely amputated stumps. What is going on here?

Stoke by Nayland church

The answer is that in 1643, Parliamentary Commissioners visited the church in Stoke by Nayland and destroyed 100 religious images and 7 funerary items. Part of this over-zealous iconoclastic behaviour was the removal of the four hands of the two women on Lady Anne’s monument, as well as those of the recumbent figure of the deceased. All the hands of females on the monument were removed but those of the kneeling male figure were left untouched. Apparently, the female hands were removed because the Commissioners considered them to have been in “a superstitious attitude of prayer”, whatever that meant during the Reformation.

The three items I have described are but a few of the things worth seeing in the two churches. I have chosen to describe them because I have not seen such things in the many other parish churches I have visited in England.

Ten instead of twelve

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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.

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.

A clock on a wall

I NOTICED THAT A CLOCK on the south wall of the nave of St Mary’s Church in Ashwell (in Hertfordshire, north of Baldock) bore the makers name “JJ Dison, Potton”. Being by nature curious, I wondered whether any trace of JJ Dison remained in Potton, a small town in Bedfordshire, about nine miles north of Ashwell. So, off we went to Potton, and what we found there was delightful.

In the tenth century, the town’s name was ‘Potun’ and in the Domesday Book (1086), it was listed as ‘Potone’. These names are derived from the Old English meaning ‘farmstead where pots are made’. During the Middle Ages, the Tudor, and Stuart eras, the Market at Potton was one lof the largest in Bedfordshire. This declined after the Great Fire of 1783 during which much of the centre of the town was destroyed. In 1797, the Shambles (a market area including brick buildings) were erected, but these fell into decline in the 1930s. A smaller version of the market building was constructed later, and this now serves as the town’s library. The two women working there were friendly but knew nothing of the clock makers of Potton They sold me three fascinating books that contain historic photographs of Potton.

Today, Potton, which once had its own brewery, is now a commuter town. Its station, first built in 1850, is on the former Great Northern Railway. Currently, commuters can travel into London on trains that terminate at London St Pancras.

We wandered around Potton looking at various old buildings and enjoying a coffee at a pleasant café that had only just reopened after several months of having been closed because of the covid19 pandemic. A pleasant walk along Church Causeway brought us the parish church of St Mary’s, perched on the highest spot in the town. Its construction began in the 13th century and many additions were made in the centuries following. As with so many churches we have visited recently, it was locked up. We walked around its exterior, admiring the many decorative gravestones in the crowded cemetery that surrounds it. We returned to the centre of Potton along the causeway, crossing a couple of fast-flowing streams along the way. These waterways are part of the Potton Brook network, tributaries of the River Ivel, which is itself a tributary of the River Great Ouse which flows into The Wash.

Well, enough about Potton: you must be wondering whether I have forgotten JJ Dison. I have not, but there is not much to say about him, but more than I had expected to discover. James Jeremiah Dison thrived in the early 19th century. His exact dates are not known. Amongst the Potton churchyard inscriptions (pottonhistorysoc.org.uk), there is one for ‘Jeremiah James Dison’, dated 29th September 1844, when Dison was aged 35. His wife, Jane (née Edwards) died in 1840, aged 31. The couple had two children, named George and Sarah.   

Dison is listed (www.clockswatches.com) as working both in Cambridge and Potton. The British Museum contains a beautiful printed watch paper (an ornamental paper place inside a watch case by the maker or repairer of a watch) which informs us the JJ Dison was a ‘silversmith and jeweller’ as well as a ‘clock & watch maker’. It also mentioned ‘jewellery &c carefully repaired’. In a directory of Potton (in a “Directory of Bedfordshire”) dated 1839, JJ Dison is listed as a watch and clock maker at Bull Street. There was another member of his trade, Mr Henry Reynolds, at Moon Corner.

The National Archives in Kew contains an undated will prepared by JJ Dison, which has within its wording:

“Jeremiah James Dison of the towne of Cambridge in the county of Cambridge watchmaker…”. Whether Dison lived both in Potton and Cambridge, it is not clear. However, the watch paper and the clock in Ashwell’s church suggest that at the very least he worked there. Also his burial in Potton, rather than Cambridge, suggests that his main residence might well have been Potton. That he worked in Cambridge is suggested by a post placed on a watch collecting website (https://mb.nawcc.org/) in which the collector noted that he had acquired a watch “…sold by John Dison Cambridge…”.  Another website (i.collector.com) listed:

“Late 18th Century pair cased Pocket Watch, J J Dison, Cambridge, number No 570, the pierced and engraved cock to a Roman enamel dial with later hands, both cased marked for London, 1789, Makers mark W L …”

It might be coincidence or possibly more than that, but James Jeremiah was not the only Dison working on timepieces in the east of England. There was Joseph Dison of Whittlesey and Thomas Dison of Biggleswade. Biggleswade is close to Potton and Whittlesey is just north of Cambridge.

The clock at St Mary’s in Ashwell is a product made by JJ Dison in Potton. A small plaque, which I was unable to read, the clock being too high above the ground, suggests that the timepiece was a donation to Ashwell’s church. Whatever its origin and story, seeking out its maker has been fun and introduced us to a pleasant town not far from London, which we hope to visit again.