There is such a strong association 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 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!
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?
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.
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.
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.