ALL SAINTS . ALTON PRIORS
GRADE II* † C12 origins, alterations and development C14 / C15; rebuilding C18. Little remains of the Norman building. Yew tree in churchyard reputedly 1700 years old. Sarsen stone(s) beneath the church accessed by trapdoor.
All Saints Church, surrounded by fields below the southern escarpment of the Marlborough Downs, is in the care of the CHURCHES CONSERVATION TRUST It is of particular interest for examining the slow transition of medieval scratch dials from rustic to cultivated. This article primarily features the massive sundial on the south face of the tower, but there’s much that could be written about the wonderful graffiti adorning the external walls – witch marks, dates, initials and so on. The wear and tear of history includes holes in the lower part of the tower wall from musket shots. There’s a great deal to explore and admire both outside and inside this most rewarding building. Then walk the paved priest’s path across the fields to the Saxon church of St Mary a few hundred yards away (there are 2 dials to look for). 51.358 / -1.8446 / SU10962
The dial that dominates the upper stage of the tower is almost invariably described as a scratch dial. However, it is difficult to categorise it thus when the scale of it is so colossal by comparison to the small dials cut on porches, buttresses etc, and only rarely above head height . All the traditional scratch dials of Wiltshire could very likely be contained within the semicircle that nearly spans the width of the tower.
However one chooses to describe the dial, it is clearly a sophisticated and ambitious design. Early scratch dials do not have numerals, generally just a style hole with lines, pocks or both, and often crude and rather random. Gradually they became more complex and cut more accurately, in a few later examples with the addition of Roman numerals. Very few scratch dials have Arabic numerals. There’s a most intriguing one at MONTACUTE Somerset, where the dial has a mix of Roman and Arabic numerals. One could argue a true scratch dial had a single rod in a hole to cast the shadow, and that a dial requiring a more elaborate iron gnomon attached to the face takes it out of the category of scratch dial. This dial was clearly designed for such an arrangement. In that way it differs from eg Litlington and ALFRISTON (E Sussex) where iron gnomons were added onto the face of an existing scratch dial.
The All Saints dial is advanced in a number of ways. The size itself and its height must have required considerable skills and inventiveness to reach, measure, design and execute. The radials are very carefully graduated down to and up from the noon line. The cutting of the dial is remarkably precise. The inclusion of half-hour markers and in particular the use of Arabic numerals add a further dimension. This combination of factors suggests a dial that is later than the generally agreed end of the true scratch dial era, around 1600. The date of the tower is described in the CCT material as fifteenth century*, and a Triennial Inspection Report (2004) notes that the inscribed sundial is still legible. I have not found any early reference to this dial. So overall I will go with the description sundial rather than scratch dial.
GSS Category: Scratch Dial; Old Dial; Unclassified
All Photos: Keith Salvesen; *thanks to CCT for information about the church