The Ottery Clock

The medieval clock in Ottery church

The Ottery clock is one of four early clocks found in the West Country. The others are in Exeter Cathedral, Wells Cathedral and Wimborne Minster. The Wells clock is unique because it still has its original medieval face, depicting a pre Copernican universe with the earth at its centre. The Ottery clock has been restored but still contains many of the original features.

During the Middle Ages clock making developed and became much more sophisticated. The way that the mechanisms worked suggested to the great minds of the time that the universe might work in a similar way to a clock.

The astronomical clocks developed by Richard of Wallingford in St Albans during the 1330s, and by Giovanni da Dondi in Padua during the 1350s, no longer exist, but detailed descriptions of their design and construction survive, and modern reproductions have been made. These are among the earliest clock designs using mechanical power driven by weights rather than water.

All early clocks served two main purposes. One purpose was for signalling and notification for example to ensure that the church services and other public events began and ended at their proscribed times. The other purpose was to model the solar system.



Astronomical clocks

Although each astronomical clock is different, they share some common features.

Most astronomical clocks, like the Ottery clock, have a 24 hour analogue dial around the outside edge, numbered from I to XII then from I to XII again. The current time is indicated by a golden ball or a picture of the sun at the end of a pointer. Local noon is usually at the top of the dial, and midnight at the bottom. Minute hands are rarely used.

Medieval clock makers were no different to us and they loved a challenge. A clock mechanism was an opportunity to demonstrate their own technical skills and to show off the wealth of their customers. Astronomical clocks were more often than not built as demonstration or exhibition pieces, to impress as much as to educate or inform. The philosophical message of an ordered, heavenly-ordained universe was part of the appeal.

I recommend a visit to the Ottery church to see the wonderful craftsmanship of the Ottery clock. It is a long lasting testament to the extraordinary skills of the makers.

You can see the Ottery clock inside the church

If you enjoy clocks then you can also visit the Honiton Clock Clinic to see antique clocks and barometers.

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