A little-known occupational hazard of working in the gardens at Buckingham Palace is being dive-bombed by the resident
There’s also the problem of dodging the carpet of droppings the birds leave on Her Majesty’s otherwise pristine lawns.
But nothing daunts Dr Frank King, the retired Cambridge academic called in when Sir David Attenborough had the temerity to question the Monarch on the positioning of a certain royal garden ornament.
For an ITV documentary, The Queen’s Green Planet, Sir David toured the Palace grounds in the company of the Queen, and pointed out that her sundial was ‘neatly planted in the shade’.
Dr Frank King, the retired Cambridge academic, is the man who can answer the question that everyone who has ever encountered a sundial wants to know
‘Isn’t it good?’ asked the Queen before turning to an aide out of shot and saying: ‘Had we thought of that? Maybe we could move it?’
Indeed, before the documentary was even screened in April 2018, the offending timepiece was already being shifted under the supervision of Dr King, an expert diallist as sundial enthusiasts are known.
The Queen could not have chosen a better man for the job. A long-time devotee of these ‘timepieces of shadows’, as one Victorian expert memorably described them, Dr King is chairman of the British Sundial Society, whose website features a regular ‘Sundial of the Month’.
This week he emerged from shadows himself to warn that a knowledge of sundials is at risk of dying out, lamenting the ‘extraordinary challenge’ of getting young people interested in the timepieces. This had wider implications he added, with few students able to tackle the maths required to design sundials.
Dr King is the man who can answer the question that everyone who has ever encountered a sundial wants to know: why, whenever you try to read a sundial — be it the splendid technical wonder which he devised for the London Stock Exchange, or the battered old thing you picked up half-price at a garden centre years ago — the time it tells never quite matches what it says on your watch.
It’s to understand the mystery that I have come to Cambridge for a lesson with Dr King, a Fellow of computer science at Churchill College, in how to read sundials.
Even the weak sun on a cold February morning is enough for me to be instructed in the easy bit — following the shadow of the gnomon (the shadow-casting pointer) to the corresponding number on the circular dial.
But then it gets complicated. The tilt of the Earth’s axis varies on a day to day basis. And because ‘Greenwich Mean Time’, or ‘clock time’ as it’s also known, takes an average of those readings, you have to add on or subtract a certain number of minutes — depending on which month it is — if you want your sundial reading to match that on your watch.
As recently as a century ago, sundials were regarded as such an essential part of life and ranged from the ivory ones, owned by the rich, to simpler wooden versions
A top-notch sundial will have a table of adjustments inscribed upon the face. It will also take account of the fact that, because the sun moves from east to west, its position in the sky at any ‘clock time’ depends on how far east or west of Greenwich you are.
For example, noon on a sundial in Cambridge, which is an eighth of a degree east of Greenwich, is 30 seconds earlier that on a sundial in Greenwich. To adjust for this, the angle of the gnomon has to be calibrated to that of the local area.
Today most sundials are bought or commissioned as horticultural ornaments, but back in their heyday, their appeal was beautifully summed up by 18th-century essayist Charles Lamb.
‘What a dead thing is a clock,’ he wrote, ‘with its ponderous embowelments of lead and brass and solemn dullness of communication . . . compared with the simple altar-like structure and silent heart-language of the old dial!’ That affinity is clearly felt by those who employ Lida Kindersley, a renowned stone engraver with whom Dr King collaborates on creating new sundials.
She provides ‘the art’ and he ‘the science’, he says and together they have co-authored a beautifully illustrated guide to the 27 stunning sundials produced by her Cambridge workshop.
Kindersley says she has been called on to design many sundials, some to celebrate birthdays or wedding anniversaries, others in memory of a lost loved one.
‘We did one for an artist who taught a lot of people in Cambridge and they gave him a sundial because he had given them his time, and they wanted to give him some time back.’
The sundials vary in complexity but all draw on a simple concept explains Dr King. This dates back to mankind’s earliest days ‘when we first noticed that we cast a shadow on the ground which varied in length according to the time of the day’.
While the Ancient Egyptians are thought to have been the first to use rudimentary measuring devices — ‘shadow sticks’ which were placed vertically in the ground — these evolved into sundials closer to those we have today, using a gnomon.
They were the cause of much irritation to the Roman playwright Plautus when trumpeters heralded the passing hours of the day as recorded by the sundial. ‘The Gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish hours . . . confound him too who in this place set up a sun-dial to cut and hack my days so wretchedly into small pieces,’ he lamented.
By the 16th century, the popularity of sundials was attested to by the numerous books explaining how to make and read them, as well as suggestions for the mottoes popularly inscribed upon them.
These were sometimes upbeat. But more often they warned about the brevity of our time on earth including such cheery examples as ‘Remember Thou Art Mortal’, and ‘Time is fleeting’.
As recently as a century ago, sundials were regarded as such an essential part of life that people carried collapsible pocket versions.
And whether they were the elaborate ivory affairs consulted by the wealthy, or humble wooden models used by the poor, they all worked in much the same way as the full-size version in the university garden Dr King used to instruct me.
Of course, many of us are simply content to gaze on a sundial from afar, and Dr King doesn’t have a problem with sundials being beautiful rather than functional — like the one in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
He confesses to being rather disappointed with it.
‘It seems to me that the head gardener probably had a little bit of money left over in his budget and thought: ‘Oh, we haven’t got a sundial, so let’s get one of those.’
‘Let’s just say it wasn’t the finest example from the period.’
He is truly worried that future generations will lack the mathematical knowledge needed to make and calibrate sundials.
‘I was involved in interviewing prospective students and for many years noticed a decline in their understanding of basic geometrical concepts like what a hypotenuse is . . . and that’s in Cambridge entrants for mathematics courses.’
‘Geometry is involved in so much new technology, from the science behind driverless cars to GPS systems, that we cannot hope to advance as a society without it,’ he adds. But for the moment he has other concerns, not least a problem with the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s gnomon.
Now Master of Magdalene College, Dr Rowan Williams recently invited Dr King, an old boy, to an anniversary lunch, during which he noticed that the sundial in the Master’s garden was the wrong way round.
Putting that right is one of the jobs he plans for the summer — when the days are at their longest and Britain’s sundials at their brightly illuminated best.