Time and the church – Steeple Ashton, Wiltshire

Wiltshire is a county where the landscape is littered with religious sites and ancient monuments involved in the measurement of time and the seasons. From the dawn of civilization to the modern era, you can see the importance that man has attached to both organized religion and the impact of time. ‘Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites’ are designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site (#373, 1986), and Stonehenge is a sophisticated astronomical predictor; it enabled Neolithic man to divide the year into segments, and also likely had a major religious function.

When Christianity arrived in Britain many thousands of years later (c. 200 AD, during the Roman occupation) it swiftly began building churches. Small, primitive, but still churches. The need for measuring time became even more important as the centuries rolled by. Time to offer the proper prayers during the day, the need to celebrate the feast day of a local saint, and observe the major festivals of the church year. These are all reasons why the church (including monasteries and other houses of religion) became involved in the measurement of time. Such horological devices as the water-clock and candles with graduated marks on them lead to the earliest powered clocks. The oldest in Britain is also in Wiltshire, and stands in the middle of Salisbury Cathedral; it is faceless, and strikes the hours using a bell – it dates from 1386.

By that time, there was a church in Steeple Ashton, Wiltshire on the site of the present-day St. Mary the Virgin (pictured above). This Grade I Listed church is a magnificent example of Perpendicular architecture, important for the external gargoyles (no longer with water flowing through them during rain) and the rare ‘Sanctus bell’, in its bellcot on the church roof, which was rung from the Reader’s seat at certain points during the Mass.

Normally, entrance to the church is made through the 16th century North Porch, complete with its heavy oak door. If you look closely at the photograph, you can just make out the gnomon (the portion of a sundial which casts a shadow) of an old sundial, located below the window in the parvise room; this sundial dates from the 18th century, and replaced one from 1636. The markings for this are just visible on the face of the North Porch, below the window in the parvise room. Above and to the left you can see the blue-colored face of the church clock, which is located on the first floor of the tower. This is an early iron clock, dating from approximately 1543, at a time when it would have been the only timepiece available to the working population of Steeple Ashton.

The measurement of time has always been important to mankind – increasingly so, as we advance at a blistering technological pace – but the landscape of Wiltshire is full of reminders of the significance of time to our ancestors, as well.




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