As we cycle about our local area we quite often stop to admire lovely churches, and occasionally take a look inside, but how often do we take notice of their clocks? Well, a recent notification to The Ickleton Society from The Hundred Parishes Society, which covers much the same area that we cycle around of North West Essex, North East Hertfordshire and South Cambridgeshire, sheds an interesting light on the church clocks that we pass by so frequently.
This is what they have to say:
‘Within each of our hundred or so administrative parishes, the parish church is nearly always the most significant heritage feature. The majority of our Grade I-listed buildings are churches and each of them has fascinating architecture, memorials and memories. Today, I would like to focus on one particular aspect, the church clock.
Before the middle of the twentieth century most people did not have watches; they relied on public clocks which could be seen at railway stations, post offices and other public buildings – and on church towers. This reminds me of the lines written in 1912 by the homesick poet, Rupert Brooke:
“Stands the church clock at ten to three
And is there honey still for tea?”
I have to report that only half of the parish churches in The Hundred Parishes have a clock. All listed buildings have a formal description, but the details for a listed church rarely mention the clock, albeit that it is often a distinctive element of the church’s appearance.
Most clocks are mounted on the church tower. Many churches have just one clock, some two or three. I have found only three churches with four clocks, one on each side of the tower: Newport, Radwinter and Steeple Bumpstead.
The majority of clocks are round, but a few are lozenge or rhombus shaped, like Felsted and Great Waltham. Most clocks have a solid face although a few, like those at Steeple Bumpstead, consist of metal framework and numerals through which the brick or flint wall can be seen.
Solid faces are usually either blue or black. Numerals and the hour and minute hands are almost always golden. The hands generally point to Roman numerals: I, II, III, IV, etc – although a good number have IIII instead of the usual IV. Widford breaks the mould with Arabic numerals: 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. Great Canfield has just a single hand, pointing to the hour.
Some clocks are inscribed with a date and occasionally a royal cipher, for example Great Waltham celebrates Queen Victoria.
Hatfield Broad Oak appears to display the oldest date locally, 1797, although the clock looks in pristine condition following recent conservation. Hinxton possibly has our oldest clock, believed to date from 1700 AD, albeit extensively renovated in 1809 when a new face was fitted.
In Furneux Pelham, St Mary’s clock is topped by Old Father Time and the words “Time Flies, Mind Your Business”. One wonders what prompted those words to be included.
The bell tower at Sheering has two clock faces which were installed in the 1940s to remember those who served in the War. The north-facing one tells us to “Work and Pray” whilst the west-facing proclaims “Today Is Yours”.
The church at High Wych was built in 1861 to the design of local architect George Edward Pritchett. Its clock is almost as wide as the thin flintstone tower on which it is mounted.
Artist Eric Ravilious lived in Great Bardfield and his wood engraving of the church of St Mary the Virgin clearly shows the enormous clock that was added to commemorate the coronation of King George V in 1912. One assumes the residents of Great Bardfield are never late for work or church. The engraving has been adopted as the logo of The Hundred Parishes.
I hope this brief insight will encourage you to take more notice of our humble church clocks. As with all things in the Hundred Parishes, we can rejoice in the variety. I attach a page of images of the clocks mentioned above. You may see some reproduced in your parish magazine over the next two month or two.’
We are probably most familiar with the clock on St. Mary’s Church in Furneux Pelham with its inscription of ‘Time Flies: Mind Your Business’ but have we ever noticed Old Father Time above it? And next time we’re passing through Steeple Bumpstead why don’t we stop to take a look at all four clocks on the church tower, or the single hand on the clock of the church in Great Canfield? It’s good to learn also that the clock on Hinxton church is getting on for 325 years old.
The Hundred Parishes Society has a lot of additional interesting information about our lovely local area here: http://www.hundredparishes.org.uk/introduction