Sundial of death
Submitted by Ken DaSilva-Hill
The sundial in our garden has been telling the time for over two hundred years. It is accurate during the summer, and in the winter months can be adjusted slightly to be more or less accurate. It is only one of several sundials we own, these timepieces being an interest of mine. This is the story of the strangest sundial I have ever inspected, a sundial with just one purpose, a Dial of Death. Solar clocks come in many types, the technology is ancient, and time has been told using the shadow of the sun for thousands of years across all cultures. Starting with a simple stick fastened upright in the ground, to a bronze muzzle loading noon gun, fired with the sunlight from a lens, all types of sundial have been tried, I have seen hundreds of types myself and also invented a few. This story concerns a single and I believe, a unique example, built into the wall of a remote English castle and as far as I know, and hope, only ever documented here, in this text. This sundial is so unique and so dastardly in its properties, I call it - The Sundial of Death.
In my work as a restorer, I have had the chance to visit and see some amazing places, often privately owned palaces and stately homes, unavailable for public inspection. Restoring and installing sundials has been a part of this work, and you yourself have quite likely seen various of the dials I have worked on, in palace gardens, parks and castles around the UK and Europe. Some years before I retired, I was invited to estimate for some work on five large and historic chandeliers, hanging in the great hall of a privately owned castle, which was used at the time as a fine summer residence by an important and aristocratic family. The chandeliers were fitted on chains, run to the medieval oak roof beams, the chains themselves being covered with fine brocade covers, ball fringed at the base. In order to lower these heavy lights when first fitted, the chains were terminated at the beams with a wire cable running through wheeled blocks into the upper walls, with each fastened to its own hand winch situated high in a corner tower. The winch room was far above the moat, and was approached by a spiral staircase of many age worn stone steps within the tower. Next to the winch room, which had obviously been used as a small chamber before the chandeliers were fitted in the seventeenth century, was another smaller room, with the unusual feature of a oak ceiling decoratively studded with short iron spikes. The walls of the room were inlaid with eight iron rods running from the floor to the ceiling and set into the walls, and a large strong ring bolt was fastened in a deep depression in the floor. I started to winch down the chandeliers one by one. The cables were in good condition as they had been treated with Rangoon oil as a preservative against rust, and then greased to run well over the blocks and winch drums. All went well until the fourth cable suddenly jammed. The cables had all been carefully marked with paint so that the base of the chandeliers when lowered down would stop short of touching the stone floor of the great hall. The fourth cable had jammed at around eleven feet from the floor, much too high to remove the chandelier safely from the cable. It occurred to me that the cable had jammed just a few feet above the winch where it traveled vertically down to the drum through a metal tube.
Making my way further up the stairs I came to another chamber above. Inside this room the five cables were neatly run close to the wall from the winches, entering the room I was now in, through five holes carefully drilled through the stone floor from the room below. They ran up and over iron rimmed wooden wheels mounted on a heavy shaft fastened into the ceiling, before making their way down to the great hall roof beams through a wooden chute affair. A sixth cable, but made from ancient hemp rope was piled in the corner, which I took to be a bell rope, and four long iron shafts also ran through holes in the floor up towards the ceiling, they were thick with years of rust. I easily cleared the jam on the steel cable. A bird had built nests over the years, and these had caused the jam, the many twigs being pulled into the wheel above and jamming the cable between the wheel and the ceiling. To reach the nest I had pulled myself up to the wheel by using one of the iron rods to climb the wall. I realised that the rod moved down a little as I climbed and this caught my interest. Getting down and now covered in rust and birds nest, I cleaned myself down and had a closer look at the rods as I did so. Each one had a rectangular hole through it, and a steel wedge was pushed through the hole about half an inch from the floor. Another point had caught my interest above the wheel beam. A strong pulley system was bolted to a metal plate on the ceiling, and a large tie off hook was screwed to the wall several feet below. However, I was here to remove five chandeliers, not inspect the building, and was expected to have them down within a few hours, so I continued with my job.
A few weeks later I returned with an assistant to replace the newly restored lights. The gilded bronze glowed and the Duke was happy with the results of our labour. We had taken the opportunity to wire the chandeliers for electricity, a time and money saver for the family as they had only used the chandeliers at great risk with real candles, on very special occasions. Now they would be both safe for insurance purposes and also enjoy the convenience of modern light switches, and the chandeliers could be lit at will. With the new electrical system installed in the roof, and lights connected and tested, we proceeded to lift the chandeliers into place. No problem, job done and the great hall a blaze of light. I remained at the winch room, waiting for my assistant to call me on our personal radios to tell me everything was now well below. While I waited my attention was taken by a large glass lens set into the outside wall and which was now projecting a strong beam across the room to the wall opposite. It struck me that the lens must have a focal point where the light was concentrated most, so I traced it along, just feeling the heat of the beam on the back of my hand. Within a few seconds I had severely burnt my hand, the light was very intense exactly below the pulley system above. Wrapping my hand in a tissue soaked in spittle, I had a closer look at the pulley, it was quite obviously intended to be used with the hemp rope. I radioed to Ben below in the great hall, and asked him to bring up a step ladder.
About ten minutes later he appeared, out of breath, as carrying the long ladder up the narrow spiral stairs had been quite a struggle. Taking the coil of rotting hemp rope, I climbed the ladder and fed the fag end through the pulley, handing it down to Ben below, and instructing him to pull it tight. Immediately grey wisps of smoke rose from the rope as the tinder dry surface started to be singed. This was looking interesting! As Ben had pulled the rope tight, a knocking sound had come from the room below, accompanied by a quiet mettalic clanking from the floor of the room we were in. Ben pulled it again as I knelt looking closely at a rod and its wedge. The rod had raised a little in the floor, and the wedge was now loose. Intrigued by this we pulled the rope tight and removing the wedges from each rod, slowly let the rope out. We had only released a foot or two when there was a terrifically loud crash from the room below, and the rods had shot down, disappearing into the floor of the room we were in. We quickly descended to the room below and an amazing sight met our eyes, the room was in a cloud of thick rising dust and the heavy oak ceiling could just be seen through it at floor level, the iron spikes driven into the floor of the tiny chamber. As the dust cleared we could see that the rotten rope had parted, it was all that had been holding the ceiling up in the lower room after the wedges were removed. The upper side of the oak ceiling had lead ingots attached, presumably to increase its already great weight. Should either of us had been down there when the rope gave way, we would have been instantly impaled on the iron spikes, crushed against the grey stone floor.
I quickly understood what we had discovered here. The small room was a torture chamber of unique design and most devious construction. A prisoner would have been chained to the floor on his or her back, facing up to the evil spikes above, and no doubt having no idea of their fate or when it would come as they gazed at the spikes above. The torturer, after chaining their victim would fully tighten the rope above and then remove the steel wedges from the rods, leaving the full weight of the ceiling on the rope, as tight as a bow string with the strain. It might be just hours, or maybe days or weeks before the rope was burnt through by the condensed beam of the lens in the wall, depending on the time of year and weather conditions. It would need bright sun to bring a quick death, a weak winter sun might take a month or more to burn through and release the heavy ceiling, letting it fall the twelve feet straight down onto the poor terrified body watching up from below in horror as death came. Would it be better to die from terror and starvation slowly but with hope of release, or quickly, as the ceiling fell in its crushing descent, we wondered.
We brought a heavy and strong terylene halliard with us on our next visit, and hoisted the ceiling safely back into place, carefully inserting the wedges again and making them completely safe with screwed bolts drilled through the small ends. I later inspected the outside wall, by abseiling on ropes down the tower from the roof, and discovered that a vertical sundial had at sometime been marked into the wall to be viewed from the castle grounds. Above where the gnomon or shadow bar had once been, was the bell shaped hole in which the ancient lens was fitted. I wondered at the pure cunning of that ingenious but sadistic person who, many hundreds of years ago, had contrived the sundial operated torture room, a cruel but strangely sophisticated device - the Sundial of Death. I took measurements, made drawings and photographed the details of the room and its devious mechanism, and made scaled plans of the sundial and its evil lens. I have promised to release these details and the location of the dial, but only when the time is right, and most possibly by young Ben as he should survive me by many years.
Lord X is rather concerned that his home will become the focus of the interested and curious, especially as he later told us of the known haunting of the castle and tower room, the tales of which have been a tradition for many years in his family, so my promise to him remains. But one day the truth will out, and the Dial of Death will become a unique note in the dreadful history of torture, within the otherwise pleasant counties of England.
Copyright - Ken DaSilva-Hill February 2017 I retain all intellectual rights to this work. Reproduction only with specific permission of the author.