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The earliest form of measuring the passing of time was the mass dial, or scratch dial. Most common in the Cotswolds, Somerset and Hampshire, they consisted of a few rays, or lines, originating from a fixed point scratched onto a stone rather like radii of a circle. At the centre was inserted a gnomon to cause a shadow which would indicate time for services etc. Although rather rough and ready and not functional on cloudy days they were a common sight. Many examples are dotted around churches, and some may not be on a south-facing wall, indicating that rebuilding has taken place. A good example is at Farmington. That at Leckhampton has 24 radial lines. Sundials have a different geometrical layout but served a similar function. The scientific sundials appeared towards the end of the 17th century although the Moors had sundials earlier.

Scratch Dial at Brimpsfield.


Medieval clocks were around but it was not until the 17th century that village church clocks had dials and mechanisms as found in, for example, Wells Cathedral. At Northleach the tune "Hanover" plays at the hours of 3, 6, 9 and 12, both by day and night.


Bells have always been rung to make people aware that a service is imminent. They were often sited on the side of the church nearest to the lord of the manor, an example is Coberley, although the manor house was pulled down a long time ago. The peal of 12 bells at Cirencester is the oldest such peal in England, and possibly in the world. Bristol Cathedral has three original bells as well as the original medieval oak frame. Cheltenham St. Mary's has a bell dated 1674, Chedworth has four dated 1717 but there are older ones within both the county and country.

The most famous bell-makers were the Rudhall family. Their foundry, founded by Abraham I, near the site of the present Post Office in Gloucester, lasted from 1684 to 1835. Nearly half of the churches in the diocese have a bell cast at this foundry, including St. Mary's, Prestbury, which still has six Rudhall bells in regular use. A peal of eight hangs in Boston, USA! Many bells were dedicated to a saint and had inscriptions with their date of casting stamped on them.

Early peals had their bells all swinging in the same direction, creating great strain on the tower and many collapsed. That at Dursley fell on 7 January 1788 "and killed several that were ringing when it fell." James Jaques hit upon the idea of swinging some bells east-west and the rest north-south. He designed and built a frame to permit this. That at St. Bartholomew, Churchdown, made in 1828, is one of the first to have been made.

Bells are rung for celebrations. We are all familiar with their joyful sound at weddings. At Dursley they were rung to proclaim the accession of James II (1685) and again the following year after, according to the accounts of the churchwardens, "ye conquest of ye rebellion of ye west." England is the only country to have change ringing, where the bells are rung one after the other but changing the order so as to ring all the possible combinations for the number of bells hanging without repetition. This is very time consuming; it would take about 24 hours to ring all 40,320 changes of eight bells. Churches often have boards recording these rings, examples can be seen at Gloucester Cathedral and at Corse.

It was the custom to ring the Sanctus Bell, or Ting Tang or Shriving Bell, on Shrove Tuesday to remind people to make themselves shriven before Lent.

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The Parochial Church Council of the Ecclesiastical Parish of St Mary and St Nicolas Prestbury Cheltenham - Registered Charity No 1130933

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Last modified: 06 June 2015