Sussex Mass & Scratch Dials




A Countryman's Diary

By the Rev. A. A. Evans

ALL boys—perhaps girls, too—are interested in birds, beasts, and flowers. I mean the healthy-minded children and those of the family of the Open Eyes. I was staying at a school recently and was introduced by the boys to a queer collection of animated creatures which they kept as a sort of side-show of the school, quite on their own account. There were larvae of moths and butterflies; caterpillars, whose only business in life was to eat; tortoises of successive generations, and several of our English lizards, of which the boys were particularly proud. In fact, one arrived while I was there, a dark brown one, struggling in the hands of its captor, who informed me he had just seized it from a hot bank close by. Another lizard shown to me was of a lovely green and blue. What happens to all these strange pets when the boys go off on holiday? Do they bribe the matron or gardener to do the daily feeding and cleaning, or do they take them home? One boy informed me that he was taking home at the break-up moths, caterpillars, a guinea pig, and also a white mouse who was about to present him with a family of young ones. These he was eagerly awaiting. I wonder what father and mother thought of such a menagerie when he arrived home?

The common newt, beloved of boys, and heartily disliked by those who grow old and fastidious, abounds in every pool and way-side of Sussex. The study of this amphibious creature, its aquatic beginnings, its successive stages of egg, larva, " tadpole," and finally perfected with legs and lungs, when the gills are shed, make it an almost ideal creature for teaching children the romance of an underworld of interest and beauty. I must confess to a want of sympathy with some people, usually morbid females, who scream and run away at the sight of every creeping, crawling thing : lizards, newts, grass snakes and tortoises. If only they were as innocent and useful! The male newt, in the early part of the year, is a handsome creature. He has a glittering blue band along the side of the tail and a wavy crest runs along his back from tail fin to the head. When the young emerges from the egg, it is the queerest and quaintest of objects. Newts are easily reared in confinement and become a delight to healthy-minded children.

I went off with the boys, whose guest I was, on an afternoon in July to Pevensey Castle. There was much to see that was new to me in the ancient work (cleared now by the Office of Works) of centuries of drifted soil and debris. There are the lines of the garrison chapel, though this was temporarily uncovered in 1852 by Charles Roach-Smith and carefully described. On the Roman bastion at the east end of the keep are the signs of an earlier and smaller chapel. The removal of wastage below, after five centuries of decay, shows up what remains of the mighty apsidal turrets. When they stood up at their full height in mediaeval days they must have been the most dominating features of the surrounding landscape. It is interesting to notice on the curtain walls, the juxtaposition of early and late Norman masonry. You can see at once the first bit of work of Robert of Mortaign, work which is coeval with the White Tower of London (1066 A.D.) and the later fine jointed masonry which came in about 1120 A.D. And there is the way to the sally-gate opened out, and its exit on to the " leaning tower of Pevensey." This tower has been hanging at an acute angle for at least 900 years.

I must have exhausted the boys with my rather long disquisition about the long stream of history which has passed through the walls of Pevensey, for when it was over most of them went for relief to a tuck shop just outside; a few, mentally hardier, went with me to explore the charming old Church of Westham, the " west hamlet " of Pevensey. Among other things of interest we found, was one of those curious old "scratch," or "mass," dials, which were in use during the mediaeval period, before watches began to be, and clocks were only slowly coming into use in such great churches as Glastonbury and St. Paul's of London. In spite of rebuilding and foolish restorations, quite a large number of these quaint little dials exist in Sussex. They were only rough and approximate methods of arriving at the hour of service, and chiefly were of guidance to the parish clerk in ringing the bell.


On the south side of the nave of Westham Church, cut into a jamb stone of a doorway, will be seen this little fragment of mediaeval church life. The hole was for the insertion of a peg which would throw a shadow; the horizontal line on either side, indicated 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The first ray line below that of six in the morning was the most important and is deeply cut. It is the 9 a.m. line and marks the time of parish mass, the chief service of the day on Sundays and Holy-days. Another deep line after that of noon is the 2 p.m. vespers, probably for winter months, and the next ray, now partly weathered away, is 3 p.m., the summer vesper hour.

Sussex must have been rich in its number and variety of mediaeval " scratch dials," but by re-building, the adding of South aisles, and ignorant restorations, most of them are lost. There is one at Folkington now put upside down on a buttress, another at Arlington growing faint with weathering. The little church of Coombes in the Adur valley has one showing only mass and vesper lines; the Saxon church of Ford has one giving only pit marks and not lines for service hours. Walberton had a beautiful five-rayed example, but this was deliberately mutilated by two vandal visitors who have cut their initials across it

Old Baker has reached a quiet place in the churchyard this many years, God rest him. He was one of a long line of Southdown labourers who worked on Birling Farm, one who could turn his hand to anything, from hedging and ditching to the care of lambs, and do it well He followed the old tradition of going to church on Sunday morning, and up to his last illness I never saw him absent from the corner of a certain pew. Yet, such was his mental make up I could never discover what he took away of my carefully pre-pared discourses; apparently none of my luminous thoughts, original ideas, carefully wrought out analogies, stuck to him. But he loved the church, loved to listen to its ancient prayers, and to do his bit with the hymns, warbling in a curiously high treble. I have often thought that the appeal made to old Baker, as to many another who reckons little of the parson and his high efforts in the pulpit, is just the quiet, the deep stillness of the church, the withdrawal for a time from all other things. May we not say, whatever some may think, the very walls of an old church breathe peace and power; they have absorbed the prayers of centuries and give out again a spiritual fragrance. Wordsworth has reminded us in a well-known poem:

. that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can find this soul of ours
In a wise passiveness."

Baker's cottage was a model of neatness, sweetness, and comfort, thanks to the sister who looked after him. It had in it, besides, what filled the lover of things old and beautiful with joy. There was a tall. well polished Sussex candlestick, with rushlight holder, a smuggler's flint-lock pistol, a Toby jug, and, most valuable of all, two handsome bits of cedar wood furniture about which was a story.

These were a corner cupboard, and a small table glowing with a brown lustre,

made of cedar wood from the wreck of the " Nympha Americana," a famous wreck which took place off Crowlink Gap in the year 1747.1 Old Baker's great great grandfather had had a hand in salvaging the wreckage, also in purloining from it, and these noble bits of cottage furniture were some of the survivals of a generous helping.

The grave memorial shown in the accompanying print, is at Wadhurst, near the church porch. It is of iron, probably neither wrought nor cast, but made up by the tools of deft workmen while the metal was in a plastic state. I want the reader to notice the quaint group of figures which adorn the upper part. It is intended to represent the story of the Good Samaritan and is not without originality and humour. The ass is a well groomed palfrey evidently using his bit of vacant time in stripping a tree of its greenery The unfortunate traveller lies on his back, knees up, and as though kicking in pain, while the Samaritan pours with generous flow, oil and vinegar into his wounds. Farther on, with eyes averted, are the priest and Levite of the parable. The eyes of one are turned on to a book, and can see nothing else; the face of the other is lost in meditation There is an unkind tradition in the parish, that the features of the first are those of the parish priest of that time, but this may be an idle talc such as some people love to cherish.

Iron slabs as grave memorials can be found in all districts where the Sussex furnaces and forges existed. Wadhurst has, I believe, over thirty, Mayfield nearly as many, and they can be seen at West Hoathly, East Grinstead, Saleburst and Sedlescome. The earliest in the county is one on the floor of Burwash church, where you are asked to pray for the soul of Joan Collins, probably an iron-mistress, and maybe of the 13th century.

1 The story of the wreck of the Nympha Americana is told in S.C.M., vol. i, page 212 et seq.

SCM Volume 4 1930  Page 771


Back ] Home ] Up ] Next ]

Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
Web presentation, all images and text Copyright © 2001-9 Martin B Snow unless otherwise credited e&oe
Last modified: 14-Oct-2009