Techniques > Variations of Existing Techniques

crosses in Spain for orientation


Into my fourth week in Andalucía, I have noticed that crosses on steeples and monuments tend to face east-west,which lets them double as noon marks; I intend to be in the UK by August. Cheers

Hugh Westacott:
An interesting observation, MoonMan!

Most pre-reformation churches in England are, by tradition, aligned on an east/west axis with the altar at the east end, but I wouldn't rely on them for navigation purposes. Church towers are often at the west end of the church.

I grow old...I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled. T.S.Eliot

Lost Soul:
This is an interesting subject.  Below I quote verbatim something I wrote for another Navigation promoter, journalist and author with whom I am in occasional contact.

Alignment of Churches and Burial Yards.

In the spring of 2012 I found myself taking a short cut through the Brompton Cemetery in London. Having a new awareness of natural navigation I stopped and said to myself I’m in a graveyard so where is East? The graves will tell me that. I looked at the graves assessed their orientation and found that there was no consistent orientation.  The only consistency was that the grave’s headstones and memorials faced the paths that crisscrossed the cemetery.

The sun was out, so using my wristwatch, making appropriate compensation for BST, I determined where East should be.  It was certainly nothing to do with the orientation of this graveyard.  Total confusion! But the given wisdom says the gravestones are always aligned east-west.  It’s one of those givens we have always known so what has gone wrong?

This set me off on a quest to find out if the received wisdom on orientation of graveyards and churches is in fact valid. Now at the time of starting this investigation I was aware of a paper that had been publicised on the Natural Navigator website whereby somebody had researched orientation of churches and found them not to be orientated exactly east-west but within a few degrees of that. Well the results of my own researches have thrown the conclusions of that particular learned paper into question.  They have also reinforced something my Grandmother used to say.  ”Believe all of what you see, half of what you read, and nothing of what you hear.”

In a not very random manner I began visiting burial sites with or without an attached church. In all I visited 22 sites, 13 with church and nine without  (burial yards). I visited a fair number of sites in Horsham (where I live) and a number of other places in Sussex which quite frankly just interested me. I also visited a number of places in London. The attached table [not included in this post, but if anyone wants to see them plaes ping me a PM and I will supply] lists all the places I visited plus gives information about my observations.  The green highlighting picks out those sites that are with in 10 degrees of east – west.  Where possible I checked out historical magnetic variation / deviation to see if when laid down the sites had been orientated to magnetic east.  There is no evidence of this being the case.

Of the churches I visited seven were mediaeval one Georgian and five Victorian. Of the burial yards I visited one was 17th century five Victorian two were 20th century and one was of unknown origin date. In taking these sites and considering East West alignment within plus or minus 10° I found that just over half the churches conformed to this criteria were as only one third of the burial yards did.

Some of the churches are considerably misaligned in that respect.  Notably Horsham Parish Church, 13th century, 20 degrees out of alignment;  Horsham Unitarian Church, early 18th century, 40° out of alignment; All Saints Parish Church Roffey (Horsham), late 19th century, 55° out of alignment.

Only the oldest and youngest of the burial yards had true east-west alignments. And they are Bunhill Fields just outside the City of London, mid 17th century.  And Botolphs Non Denominational Cemetery at Botolphs in West Sussex, late 20th century.  A consistent feature of the Victorian burial yards is that the graves face the paths. And the paths seem to fit the local geography.  For instance in the Brompton Cemetery which is flat and rectangular the main avenue is straight, 60° off of East and at right angles to the main roads at either end.  All other paths are either at right angles or parallel to it.  On the other hand Highgate West Cemetery is on a hill with the paths snaking and curving around the site.  Which means of course that the graves here are facing every which way. Highgate East Cemetery has some curved paths but mainly straight ones 20° off of East etc .

Now all the burial yards and churches I visited were of Anglican or nonconformist denominations.  However, out of curiosity I visited the Hoop Lane Jewish cemetery in Golders Green. That threw up quite a surprise. The cemetery is divided into two parts, the east side is a traditional Sephardi Cemetery.  Gravestones laid horizontally and facing nominally 150° to 160°. The west side for all other Jewish traditions has horizontal gravestones and here the graves face anywhere between 300° and 340° dependent on the sector of the site. The two halves of the burial yard faced in opposite directions; make what you will of that.

In conclusion what I can say in respect of burial yards is that basically Victorian sites are non-aligned. Factors affecting the alignment are very much influenced by adjacent roads. The site is either parallel or at right angles to the road. And in terms of the burial structures, as we all know Victorians liked to make statements about themselves and therefore the grave site orientation appears to be all about visibility (i.e. always facing the path) and nothing to do with religious convention. This can be very clearly seen in the St Pancras Church (just by St Pancras station). Where mediaeval graves were cleared away to make way for the railway and the post-railway Victorian edifices face every which way.

Churches fare much better in their alignments and in so doing do the graveyards, which themselves are in line with the church.  The older the church i.e. 11th or 12th century the better the alignment. However, as noted above there are exceptions. The most significant example being All Saints in Roffey which is aligned parallel to the road making it 55° out of alignment.

Bottom line?  Be very wary of blindly using church or burial yard orientation as a means of knowing direction.  If it is Victorian or anything to do with the Victorians forget it.  Be cautious – but not necessarily dismissive - of anything that is parallel to or at right angles to the adjacent road.  If it’s very old the road could have been aligned to match the structure not the other way around.  The only trustworthy sites appear to be medieval or earlier.  Yet again maybe I can stretch a point up to the 17th century.

Prior to the above I wrote an earlier piece in November 2011 on the alignment of Christian Churches in Israel.

I recently visited Israel doing the Holy Land tour. Basically visiting lots of churches built on sites reputed to be where significant events in JC's life took place. I don't dispute he was born in Bethlehem. It’s just that the Church of the Nativity, like the rest of the original churches, were built some 300 years after the event by Emperor Constantine's wife. On sites she determined as being the spot. Anyway before I digress too far with my theories of historical inaccuracies based on hearsay and myth I will move on to the point of this message.

Now in the UK all churches face east; 090 degress give or take a couple of degrees [well I know a bit better now!!]. So I said to myself in which direction do the churches in Israel point? Do they point east, or to Bethlehem or to Jerusalem or what? With trusty compass in hand I set out to answer the question. Without exception 080 deg magnetic is the answer. Irrespective of whether the Church was very old, old or new.

By this I mean very old would be Churches based on those built by the Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries, in turn on the foundations of the original 4th century Byzantium buildings of the Constantine era. Old are churches associated with JC’s life events or otherwise, built say up to a couple of hundred years ago. And new are items built in the last few decades. Some replacing much older structures.

Essentially there is a considerable accord in the direction the churches face. And that is right across geographical location, the historical record and irrespective of which denomination owns them. Magnetic declination for Israel is 4 deg east. Which makes the direction the churches face 084 true. So why do they point 084 true and not due east? [I never did get an answer to this last question.]

Hugh Westacott:
A brief addendum to this interesting discussion.

It was a popular belief in the Middle Ages that on the Day of Judgement, Christ would appear in Jerusalem. It was known that Jerusalem was somewhere in the east and so it seemed appropriate to align churches on an east/west axis. It may also be connected to a lingering folk myth connected to the sunrise.

The 13th-century Mappa Mundi (map of the world) in Hereford Cathedral shows Jerusalem at the centre of the world

I grow old...I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled. T.S.Eliot


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