Symbol of the Month – Old Father Time

Old Father Time on an almost horizontal headstone, Pluckley, Kent
©Carole Tyrrell

Ah, the perils of searching for symbols in old churchyards. I had to almost lie horizontally on the ground to take a photo of this one in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Pluckley, Kent.  I was a little nervous that the headstone would fall on top of me but what a headline that would have made!

At the time I had no idea what it represented and just thought it looked interesting.  In fact it wasn’t until much later when I’d had a chance to look at it properly that I realised the identity of the figure in the carving.  I then wished that I’d also taken a photo of the epitaph.

It is in fact a depiction of Old Father Time.  It’s a lovely example. As you can see he’s sitting with one hand holding a fearsome looking scythe with a bent and gnarled stem and the elbow of his other hand is resting on an hourglass.  He is a very old man with a white beard, large angel wings on his back and is flanked on either side by two angel heads.  What better symbol for a life that had ended?

So far I have only discovered a few other examples.  There is a 17th century version on a tombstone in a Hendon churchyard and a huge, modern one again resting on an hourglass within Warzaw’s Powarzski cemetery.  I can’t show them in this blog as one is on a stock images library and so not royalty free and I am awaiting permission to use the other image.  However I found this one on Wikipedia but its location is not given.

Old Father Time and a grieving widow. An unknown Irish memorial.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

We traditionally associate Old Father Time with the New Year celebrations. He is the representation of the outgoing Old Year welcoming in the New Year which is usually portrayed as a smiling baby.  But Father Time has also been described as a gentler version of the Grim Reaper as they share the same accoutrements of a scythe and hourglass.

He is considered to be the personification of age and is related to the ancient Greek god Chronos and also the Roman god Saturn. Father Time’s ageing, worn out body is a reminder that time ultimately devours all things and that none can escape.  The grains of sand in the hourglass count out not only his life but all lives.  Although he has a long, white beard, a sign of age, it has been interpreted as a reclamation of purity and innocence.  But, as the hourglass can be inverted, so can a new generation, the New Year, restore the source of physical vitality. However, time is not always destructive as it can also offer serenity and wisdom.

Cronos, from which chronology derives, was the ancient Greeks word for Time and the Romans knew him as Saturn. According to Wikipedia:

The ancient Greeks themselves began to confuse chronos, their word for time, with the agricultural god, Cronus, who had the attribute of a harvester’s sickle.  The Romans equated Cronos with Saturn, who also had a sickle and was treated as an old man, often with a crutch. The wings and hourglass were early Renaissance additions.’

The Roman Chronos was originally an Italian corn god known as the Sower and a big festival known as the Saturnalia was held to celebrate the harvest.   So there is a link between these ancient gods and Father Time in that they both symbolically harvest, or cut down the mature crops, to make way for the Spring’s new growth.

Father Time appears throughout many cultures and also in art, books and sculpture amongst others.  In one of Hogarth’s later work, The Bathos, he appears lying down surrounded by his familiar objects, all now broken.

The Bathos by William Hogarth in which Old Father Time lies surrounded by his broken symbols.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons.

But in St Nicholas’ churchyard  Old Father Time keeps an eternal watch over a life that has ended,  resting on a still crisply carved hourglass.  It is full, the scythe has harvested and so the endless cycle of life continues.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004

©Carole Tyrrell


R.I.P Queen Elizabeth II

It has been quite a week with a new Prime Minister and then the passing of Queen Elizabeth II at 96. The rituals and ceremonies of a Royal passing are now in place and we have a new king, King Charles III. It feels strange and it is a shock to realise that I will not see another Queen in my lifetime.

I feel that the Queen did an exemplary job and stayed true to her principles and faith throughout her astounding 70 year reign. As she said on becoming Queen after the death of her father, King George VI, ‘I declare before you all, that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

For most of us, she has always been there, clearly visible in her bright clothes and hats, and she did not have the option of saying ‘I don’t fancy it today, I think I’ll sleep in.’ The world has seen many changes during her reign and yet she always seemed to adapt to them.

The Platinum Jubilee was such fun and I hope that she enjoyed it. And this is how I would like to remember her.

Rest in peace Your Majesty, you’ve earned it. And Ma’am, thank you for everything.

©Text Carole Tyrrell

A Spring Saunter Part 2 – a visit to St Mary the Virgin, Fordwich – the churchyard.

The Bigg tomb, St Mary’s churchyard ©Carole Tyrrell

The churchyard – a place of skulls and spring flowers was definitely ready for its Spring mow. Shaggy grass peeped from between the monuments and memorials.  The 18th century skulls grinned at me from small headstones clustered near the church entrance and there were several styles to choose from.  These ranged from a naïve version to more professionally carved ones.

However, there was a 17th century table top tomb beside the church wall and also near the entrance It’s a helpfully low tomb in that it’s just the right height for sitting down on or standing on to look through the window above and inside the church. This tomb is dedicated to two of the Biggs brothers whose charitable enterprises still help those less fortunate in Fordwich to this day.  The Bigg brothers were Walter and Stephen who died in 1631 and 1646 respectively.  Inside St Mary’s, the bread shelves remain in place for the

‘loaf provided by Thomas Biggs (another brother who died in 1669) to be distributed weekly to the poor.’

A sort of 18th century food bank as the guidebook helpfully points out. More examples of their generosity are recorded on Benefaction boards by the tower arch.  The guidebook adds that:

‘Walter Bigg gave the income from land for the relief of poor and aged people in the parish and Stephen Bigg gave 20 shillings yearly for six poor householders in Fordwich and six in Sturry from land rent with the remainder to be used to put out poor boys and girls of each parish as apprentices. These bequests (including the bread) are still being fulfilled by the Fordwich United Charities.’

Frustratingly, I couldn’t find out much about the Bigg brothers but I will keep researching.

Stone dove on top of a headstone. ©Carole Tyrrell

Spring flowers studded the grass: bluebells, dog violets and the bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine made splashes of colour amongst the memorials.  Spring is such a lovely time to be out church crawling, or steeple chasing, as Mother Nature begins to yawn and stretch and come back to life again.  A line of forget me nots led the way to a young child’s grave.  The rose on it was a poignant reminder of unrealised hopes.

A rug of primroses on a grave. ©Carole Tyrrell

Dog violets. ©Carole Tyrrell

Bluebell. ©Carole Tyrrell

Forget me nots leading the way to a child’s grave. ©Carole Tyrrell

Close up of child’s grave. ©Carole Tyrrell

But it was the skulls that caught my attention.  They were all clustered around the entrance, jostling for position as they reminded the parishioners to lead a godly life as they would one day be only a skull and crossbones.

A skeleton on a corner of a large table top tomb. ©Carole Tyrrell

Skull and crossbones on the same table top tomb. ©Carole Tyrrell

3D Skull on the headstone of Mr John Smith. ©Carole Tyrrell

A naive skull on a small headstone. ©Carole Tyrrell

A double header headstone for Mr Henry Brown. ©Carole Tyrrell

As I rounded the corner of the church, I saw the River Stour in the distance and also a rug of wood anemones completely covering the flat top of another grave.  They are one of my favourite Spring flowers and nearby was another rug but this time it was of primroses, yellow and pink.  Cuckoo flowers with their delicate, pale pink flowers lifted their heads up to the sun.  They are an important feed plant for both the Orange Tip and Green veined White butterflies.  Cuckoo flowers are also known as ‘lady’s smock’ and their arrival is thought to coincide with the arrival of the first cuckoo hence the name.

Wood anemones. ©Carole Tyrrell

Cuckoo flower. ©Carole Tyrrell

The more modern section of the churchyard was beside the river and these headstones featured kingfishers and daffodils.  There are several meanings attributed to daffodils and these include Memory. There was also a man swimming on one of them and I wondered what it meant. This was proof that people, even now, want to leave a message for those left behind.

As I finally left St Mary’s and walked back down the path, I spotted a lone headstone, set apart from the others, and in a very different style.  It was a winged skull and reminded me of the ones that I’d seen in photographs from ancient New England churchyards.

Winged skull. ©Carole Tyrrell

However, I forgot to keep a lookout for the rumoured ghost that is supposed to patrol this quiet corner of Fordwich.  It is as the guidebook says:

‘Colonel Samuel Short, Lord of the Manor, who died in 1716, and it is his ghost that is said to still walk by the church gate.’

I then moved onto the church in Sturry that I’d seen from the bus and …what delights I found there…

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

Guidebook to St Mary’s Fordwich, Kent published by the Churches Conservation Trust ( some interesting facts about Fordwich and its history)