Stands the Church clock at ten to three? Not if there’s no number 10!

Stands the Church clock at ten to three? Not quite: look closely

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

So ends Rupert Brooke’s famous poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. I say famous: those two lines are indeed celebrated, but how many people, I wonder, know much of the rest of the poem?

Brooke wrote it in what felt like temporary exile, living and working in Berlin in 1912 and desperately homesick. So that evocative last section (the most approachable of the poem) is all about wondering wistfully whether things still carried on at home as they always had done: hence that enduring final pair of images.

Brooke’s lines stuck in my head last week, on a visit to my old Dad in Somerset. After a lunch out, he suggested we take a drive around places from my childhood. So we drove through the village of Evercreech, where he was village doctor from 1953 to 1969. We just need to check the village church, he said.

Dad had read a letter in the Daily Telegraph, some months before, stating that there was something odd about the clock on the handsome 14th-Century Perpendicular tower of Saint Peter’s Church. The age of the clock-face is unknown, though experts suggest that the way the fourth Roman numeral is written, IIII instead of IV, might help to determine a date.

More curious, though, is the fact that the clock boasts no number ten: instead the last four numerals read IX, XI, XII and, yes, XII again. Legend has it, so Wikipedia assures me, that the man who paid for the clock-face (whenever he did so) caused it to be constructed thus because his wife always insisted that he be home from the pub by 10pm: he couldn’t be blamed if there was no 10 o’clock visible!

True or not, it’s a splendidly eccentric story. Bizarrely, Dad lived in Evercreech for 16 years, as a pillar of the local community, but never noticed the clock’s oddity. Nor was I aware of it in my 13 years there. There was that church tower, dominating the village, with what should have been an obviously wrong clock: but none of us noticed.

This simple tale demonstrates how easily we take things for granted and accept them as they are. In my childhood we would certainly check the church clock for the time (kids didn’t all have wristwatches back then, and mobile phones had been even dreamed of). I guess we looked at the position of the hands on the dial, not needing to read the numeral, so never noticed the error.

A fine church tower, a clear clock-face: but something’s just not right

We knew what it looked like, so had no need to examine it closely. It was merely reassuringly familiar.

Out of curiosity, Dad wanted to check out the story, and chuckled at his failure to notice it throughout the past 64 years. It was just the church clock, comfortingly permanent, taken for granted.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: so it was only in Berlin, lonely and far from home, that Rupert Brooke pieced together that patchwork of fond, random memories into the rich tapestry of haunting recollections and painful longing that close Granchester: that comical visit to Evercreech last week furnished me with an insight, albeit and oblique one, into his thoughts.

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

In Evercreech, at any rate, I guess the clock never has stood at ten to three: not if you take note of the numerals, anyway.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful, informative and insightful journey into idyllic nostalgia! I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughtful analysis!
    This is a piece of poetry that I have consistently misquoted for decades, as I have also with many other pieces – but much loved for all that!
    Thank you- and apologies to Rupert Brooke!


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