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.
Hands move slowly
Time pass-es unceasingly
The clock remains unmoved
Landing on a leaf
But for a brief moment
An insect of beauty
This old window
Has been witness to much history
Over the years
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.
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.
OUR GOOD FRIENDS IN HERTFORDSHIRE always take us out into the countryside for a walk with their two friendly dogs. Invariably, we visit countryside that is both beautiful and contains something of interest. This time, we parked in the small hamlet of Thundridge (in Hertfordshire), which is located on what was once the Roman road, Ermine Street (from the Old English ‘Earninga Straete’). This thoroughfare linked London with York. We set off by walking along a small road named Old Church Lane. This soon becomes a footpath that runs alongside the River Rib, a tributary of the River Lea, which in turn is a tributary of the River Thames. The Rib merges with the Lea in the town of Hertford.
We walked past a vast field in which some grassy crop was growing. Far across the field there was a small wood. A church tower could be seen rising from amongst the trees. We followed another path towards the clump of trees and soon arrived at the tower. This tower and a graveyard is all that remains of the church of St Mary and All Saints (some call it ‘All Hallows and Little St. Mary’ and others ‘Thundridge Old Church’), which was demolished (apart from the tower) in 1853, when a new church was built in Wadesmill. The tower was constructed of flint and mortar in the 15th century. The rest of the church, now demolished, was built in the 11th to 12th centuries. A Romanesque archway now set into the eastern wall of the tower is the only visible remains of that former church. Although this ruined tower might well appeal to those who find ruins romantic, it is in a bad condition with some of the structure covered with corrugated iron sheeting and other parts with graffiti. There are some plans to conserve it and others to demolish it to make room for new housing.
The reason that the old church was demolished was that the old manor house, which was close to the old church, was demolished in the 19th century. Consequently, the population of Thundridge moved nearer to the new manor house that was built where the church built in 1853 now stands.
Just before we reached the old church tower, we passed a field which had a long grass-covered trench running along it. This is the remains of a moat built long ago when Thundridge village was located near to the the old, now demolished church. The banks of the moat were liberally studded with mole hills. This moat is believed to have been dug in mediaeval times. What remains of it is ‘D’ shaped and encloses an area bounded by sides of approximately 660 feet north to south and by the same east to west. The moat enclosed the site of the former manor house.
Having seen all that remains of Thudridge Old Church, we retraced our steps to Ermine Street, crossed the fast-flowing River Rib, and then ate an enormous roast lunch in the garden of the nearby Feathers pub in Wadesmill, which is about two minutes’ walk from Thundridge.
TODAY, I WAS WALKING ALONG Mill Lane in West Hampstead when I spotted a plaque almost hidden in a doorway. It commemorated a craftsman who used to work in the building. I wondered why anyone had bothered to put up a notice to remember him.
Mill Lane connects West End Green (in West Hampstead) with Shoot Up Hill, which is a stretch of what was once the Roman Watling Street. West End Green was known as ‘Le Rudying’ (a name given to a woodland clearing) in the 14th century. By 1534, the area around the Green was known as ‘West End’. Currently, this green is a part of the district of West Hampstead. Although not so named until later, Mill Lane existed in the Middle Ages. A detailed map published in 1870 reveals that at that time, there were scarcely any buildings along it. It was not until the late 19th century that Mill Lane began to be lined with houses and shops. A pub on the lane, The Alliance, bears the date 1886, suggesting that before that time there was not sufficient local population to warrant building such a large hostelry.
It was the doorway of number 54 Mill Lane that caught my attention. Number 54 is sandwiched between AK locksmiths Ltd and Computer Clinic. Its shop front has frosted glass. It is the window of an office connected with St Johns Wood Cars, a taxi and private vehicle hire company. The commemorative plaque that I noticed is close to the doorway that gives access to a staircase that leads to the upper floors of the building.
The wording on the commemorative plate reads:
“Clifford Norman Bowler, watchmaker and jeweller, lived & worked here. 1899-1993. A Mill Lane tradesman for over 67 years.”
Well, 67 years is a long time and no doubt Clifford (1899-1993) was a well-known local. Articles published on the Internet (www.watchrepairtalk.com/topic/3184-clifford-norman-bowler-watchmaker and westhampsteadlife.com/2014/01/15/a-moment-in-time-on-mill-lane/9921 ) show that that Clifford was a remarkable member of his profession. Clifford was born in Northumberland in July 1899 and served in the Machine Gun Corps during WW1. By 1926, he was on the Electoral Register, registered as residing at 54 Mill Lane, and in 1929 he married Mabel in nearby Willesden.
He bought the shop on Mill Lane for £100 in about 1926 after leaving the army and having worked for a while with other jewellers and watch-repairers in Manchester. His shop used to be painted red and has been immortalised in a documentary film shot for Channel 4 by a local film-maker, Conrad Blakemore, who currently teaches at the City Lit college in London. His charming short film “The Watchmaker”, a working day in the life of Clifford Bowler, can be viewed on YouTube (https://youtu.be/BU2nOQwxiWw). In it, Clifford, a charming old man, explains that he left the army in 1919 and began learning watch-repairing in Manchester. Faced with a wage cut, he asked his brother, who was already living in London, to find him some premises. The shop he acquired in Mill Lane was already a watch and clock repairing business. The £100 he paid for it included much equipment required for his trade.
Clifford’s father was a professional banjo and mandolin player. Clifford and Mabel had two children. One of them, Norman Clifford Bowler (born 1932), has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps by having a career in entertainment. Between 1961 and 2012, he appeared in many plays mainly on television.
Although his watch repairer father probably had nothing to do with India, Norman Clifford did forge a connection with the far-off country. In 2011, Norman Clifford recorded “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in Bristol. Incidentally, Coleridge’s remains lie in St Michael’s Church in Highgate, where my school used to attend services regularly. The recording was made by Norman Clifford to raise money for a school, The Aikiyam School, in the settlement of Auroville, which is close to the city of Pondicherry, a former French colony, in the south of India. A website (lanternmanproductions.bandcamp.com) that gives access to the recording also notes:
“After falling ill a number of years ago, Norman, as part of his recuperation began to spend time in the warmer climes of Southern India with his wife, Diane. As a result, he became directly involved with The Aikiyam School as a teacher of English and Drama. As the years have gone on, Norman spent more and more time in India, only returning to England to spend time with family and friends, and raise money for the school with poetry readings and personal appearances.”
Clifford is privileged to have met Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) and The Mother (Mirra Alfassa; 1878-1973), Aurobindo’s spiritual companion/muse, and there exists a recording (www.aurovilleradio.org/satprems-my-burning-heart-a-reading-by-norman/) in which he describes his impressions of her.
When I chanced upon the almost hidden memorial to a watch and clock repairer in Mill Lane, little did I expect to discover a connection between a somewhat non-descript shop in West Hampstead and the south Indian utopian settlement of Auroville, where we have some good friends and have visited a few times. Well, they say that ‘curiosity kills the cat’. Luckily although I am curious about what I see whilst out and about, I am not a cat.
RETIREMENT OFFERS MANY PLEASURES. One of these is waking up in the morning at whatever time one wishes. I do not want to sound slothful but waking up early rarely appeals to me.
While I was undertaking research for my PhD in physiology at University College London (‘UCL’), there were no daily time constraints. I could turn up at the laboratory whenever I felt like it and leave whenever I wanted. My timings were entirely up to me. I used to arrive at UCL at about 10 in the morning. At 11 o’clock, I went upstairs for coffee and biscuits in the Starling Room (a departmental meeting place for post-graduates and academic staff; named in honour of the physiologist Ernest Starling). By noon, I had returned to the lab. However, there was not much time to do anything because I liked to have lunch at just before 1 pm. And, after lunch, I often sat in the Ladies Common Room, chatting with Margaret, my supervisor’s wife who also worked in the lab. You can be sure that we never discussed scientific matters over our cups of sub-standard institutional coffee.
By just after 2 pm, I began getting down to work, setting up an experiment. However, everything stopped at 4 pm, when one of us would put the kettle on to boil, the heat being supplied by a gas flame from a Bunsen burner. Tea and biscuits involved me spending another hour chatting, mainly with Margaret. The other PhD students and workers in our lab took tea but were not distracted from their work. At 5 pm Margaret and my PhD supervisor, Robert, set off homewards, followed soon after by the rest of the lab. Between 5 and about 8.30 pm (and on some weekend days) is when I managed to do some ‘solid’ work. Miraculously with this lackadaisical schedule, I managed to do sufficient experimental research to be awarded a doctorate. Then, my life changed dramatically.
Soon after becoming ‘Dr Yamey’, I enrolled in the Dental School of UCL to train to become a dental surgeon (‘dentist’). Compared to my BSc and the PhD studies, this course leading to a Batchelor of Dental Surgery degree was far more demanding of my time. Five days a week, my presence was required at the Dental School at 9 am sharp. The day, which included a lunch break and two brief coffee breaks (if you were lucky), ended at about 5 pm. This seemed to me as bad as being sent back to junior school.
At first, I found this rigorous routine difficult after the relatively laxer times I had enjoyed during my BSc and PhD courses. I remember waking up at 7.00 am on dark autumn mornings and looking out of my bedroom window to see if there were lights on in any of my neighbours’ windows. Often, there were none. To arrive at the hospital by nine in the morning, I had to board the Underground at the peak of the morning rush hour. The tube trains were always crowded, standing room only, at that time. However, in those days in the late 1970s each train had two carriages in which smoking was allowed. Because many people were going off smoking or did not smoke, these carriages always had plenty of empty seats when they pulled into my station, Golders Green. Ignorant of secondary smoking, as I was then, I always travelled comfortably in the smelly, smoke filled carriages. However, by the time I had travelled the thirty minutes to Warren Street, I was always in great need of a quick coffee in the Dental Hospital’s basement canteen before classes began. After qualifying, the early morning routine continued. It lasted for thirty-five years until, at last, I retired.
Waking early in the morning was not confined to dental studies and practice. It is a feature of life that I have got used to in India. Many people in India wake early to take advantage of the cooler early hours of the day. I learned this very soon after arriving in Bangalore during my first visit to India in 1994. For the first few weeks, my wife and I stayed in my in-law’s home. On the second or third morning of our stay, I woke up in darkness. I could hear people rushing about in the house. I woke up my wife and said that I thought that the house was being burgled or attacked. She reassured me that all was okay and told me that the family liked to rise early. It was not quite 5 am. Day after day, my father-in-law tried to encourage me to join him on his early morning walk, to see the sun rise. Eventually, I gave in and we walked around a nearby open space in semi-darkness. It was only when we had returned to the house that we noticed the sun was beginning to rise.
Since those early days in India, I have just about got used to getting up incredibly early if there is a good reason to do so. Driving out of a city as large as Bangalore is one of these reasons. Before 7 am, there is hardly any traffic on the roads, which are usually choc-a-bloc during working hours. Flights to London are another good reason. They often leave India at early hours of the morning so that they can land in Western Europe at an hour that will not disturb those asleep in the UK, where late night/early morning passenger flights are forbidden. Although I can see the benefits of doing things early in the morning in India, I still miss being permitted to sleep until my built-in biological clock gives me its wake-up call. And for those of you who are by now thinking that sleep is all important to me, let me tell you that of late, despite not having any work or travel obligations, that clock of mine is waking me up much earlier than it used to years ago.
Beauty short liv’d
Dandelions with seeds
Life is so very fragile