There is such a strong link between Christmas and bells. Images of them  adorn our trees and  greeting cards, and the faithful are summoned to church by them on Christmas morning.

I wasn’t sure whether to post this article as history or humour, but the humour  is a bit dark so I have decided on the former!

Many of us associate the sound of bells with the city of London, perhaps because we grew up chanting the old rhyme Oranges & Lemons, which can still be heard at  St Clements Dane church in The Strand. The bells peal at 9.00am, Noon, 3.00pm and 6.00pm.. Traffic noise can be a problem, but if you ask the Verger he will open the door of the tower so you can hear  more clearly.  Laminated copies of the lyrics  are  on sale.

The final lines in the rhyme are rather sinister; ‘ Here come a candle to light you to bed.Here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

The age-old game of Oranges and Lemons
The age-old game of Oranges and Lemons

Oh the delicious fear of thinking you may be the one to be ‘decapitated’  by your  friends  in the old game we used to play. I wonder if this has died out in school-grounds and backyards?

Old church spires of London
Spires of the old London churches.  (Wikipedia.)

Of course today  the most famous of London’s bells is  Big Ben, in the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster.  Long the focus of the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, the measured tolls of Big Ben heralded  the third millennium  via the BBC, which has broadcast the sound of the bells since 1923. Unfortunately they have recently  fallen silent, while a major renovation of the tower is completed.

Big Ben, from Wikipedia
Big Ben, from Wikipedia

I love the chime of bells. When my husband Rob and I lived near Marlow in the UK the peal from Hurley’s  St Mary’s  the Virgin church used to   drift across the Thames on Sunday mornings.  However, bellringing  has been known to drive the most saintly folk to distraction.

During the twelfth century an abbey was founded at Old Byland, two miles from Rievaulx Abbey on the North York Moors. Unfortunately the abbeys were within earshot of each other’s bells, which pealed day and night as they called  the monks to prayer. The situation became unendurable and after only four years, Old Byland was abandoned.

Vergers of Britain’s parish churches would also do well to remember the fate of the bells of  St Swithins, in the tiny  Wiltshire village of Compton Bassett. ‘Change ringers’ from around the country were attracted to St Swithins by the church’s fine, six  bell peal. Change ringing is a procedure for ringing bells in various orders, and sessions can last a very long time. Unfortunately, an enthusiastic team from Oxfordshire in 1998 proved the final straw for a highly respected lady living  close to the church.  Under the cover of darkness. the 64 year old crept around to the bell tower armed with an axe. In an act of vandalism which shocked church authorities, Midge Mather  hacked down the tower’s  15th century  door and severed the bell ropes. She then rang the police and confessed. There was really no penalty adequate enough to fit the crime, which may have  been why she was given a conditional discharge.

The church at Compton Bassett
The church at Compton Bassett

Today, visitors scarcely glance at the church’s beautiful 15th century rood screen. Instead, they head for the bell-tower to inspect all too visible  repair work on what is now a very famous  (or infamous)  door.

The Midge Mather attack  was not an isolated incident. As churches around the country began to gear up for the ringing in of the new millennium, tensions escalated. In one case, change  ringers were locked in the belfry by angry locals .Click  HERE for an account.

Britain has over 40,00 bellringers and while not  ranking with bungy jumping as a hazardous pastime involving a rope, ringers do need to keep their wits about them. Before bells can be rung they must be swung upside down. An ‘overthrow’ can send the bell round a second time, pulling an unwary ringer with it, or encircling his or her  neck with a flailing rope. As the following verse indicates, some people (including Midge Mather) may view this as poetic justice;

 Ye rascally ringers, inveterate foes,

Disturbers of those who are fond of repose,

I wish for the peace and quiet of these lands

That ye had round your necks what ye pull with your hands!

If bells are left in the ‘up’ position between practice sessions the ropes are looped in a certain way, to warn anyone against entering the belfry. A heavy tenor bell can tip over at a touch, striking a fatal blow.

It is also wise to check that bell tower  is empty before a session commences.  There is a story that some years ago, ringers at Great Lindford in Buckinghamshire were horrified when blood began to trickle down the bell ropes.  Apparently an unfortunate  maintenance man had failed to finish his work in the tower on time and suffered dire consequences.

For anyone interested in bellringing, there could be no better read than  ‘Nine Tailors’, a murder mystery based on bellringing by Dorothy Sayers, in which Lord Peter Wimsey helped ring in the new year with a daunting nine hour peal. Set in the fens of East Anglia, the novel has an ingenious plot and is a wonderful evocation of  English village life.

I love these photos of carillon bells being transported to Sydney University in 1928 by horse drawn trolleys.  They had been cast in  England. The carillon was a memorial to more than 200 University men who died in WWI.

Bells for the carillon at Sydney University

As we approach Christmas in this truly horrific year of 2020, let me present something of absolute purity and beauty. Titled Winter Landscape, it is a jewel by Rene Lalique dating from 1899-1900. What a sublime creation of gold, enamel, pearl and glass. Thanks to my friend Fiona Orr for alerting me to this treasure.

Two of my favourite Christmas songs are Bing Crosby’s The Bells of St Marys and Silver bells.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS 🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄🎄

  1. Dangerous world those ringer live in! If it’s not being swung up to the roof of the tower because you didn’t ‘do it right’, it’s surviving some of those Ringing Tours which always seemed to take place in a variety of hostelries across the country. My sister rings at St Eustachius Parish Church in Tavistock but before she moved to the south-west, was a Ringer at the Curfew Tower, Windsor Castle (an ‘invited’ life position for competant ringers). A very useful position, because when I lived in Maidenhead, could always use her complimentary tickets for events at the Castle such as the Garter Ceremony etc.

    • Oh, how interesting that your sister is a bell-ringer (when in doubt use a hyphen!)She must have some wonderful stories, especially re the Curfew Tower at Windsor. Did she participate is the country wide peal for the millennium?

      • Have just re-read this post. Very entertaining, and now joined by another!

  2. Fascinating story. Wicked and dangerous times. Eerie … I keep hearing the tune of oranges and lemons in my head. Shivers!!!

  3. Lovely bit of history there, Pauline!

    • Pauline

      I do love bells Ann, but don’t think I’ll venture into the ringing of them!

  4. Great story again, Pauline.
    Like many nursery rhymes, Oranges & Lemons has quite sinister origins (meanings) but when you’re a child it’s just the rhythm and rhyme of the words and associated activities that go with it that you remember.
    After reading through a nursery rhyme book with my grand-daughter recently, I taught her how we used to play O & L and the ‘chopper …’ bit didn’t phase her at all; as it was for us it was just a game.
    And that wasn’t half as ‘scary’ as some of the games kids play on their electronic devises these days!

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