Bells. People of my generation, particularly those who’ve spent nearly 40 years working in schools, may feel their lives have been ruled by bells.
The tradition goes back centuries. For a thousand years church bells have signalled the hours of prayer, reminding those working in the fields and elsewhere not only of the need to pray but also (and probably more important to them) of the passing phases of the day.
Thus Thomas Gray’s unparalleled evocation of old England, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard begins:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day;
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way…
It is church bells, too, that over the centuries have announced great events: historical accounts tell us of church bells ringing to celebrate victories, or to mark a royal marriage or birth. Even today Christmas and wedding cards are decorated, symbolically of celebration, with images of bells. They have measured the seasons, lives, deaths, fires, achievements and disasters: in the Second World War church bells were silenced, to be rung only as an alarm if Hitler invaded.
In the monastic boarding school I attended as a teenager, it was the custom to announce the death of one of the community by ringing the bell of the Abbey church, named Great Bede, once every minute for each year of the life of the departed. I recall a full hour and a half of booms when a 91-year-old monk died: the dignified and moving tribute affected even us rowdy teenagers.
In Ring out, wild bells, part of his poem In Memoriam, Alfred Lord Tennyson describes the bells ringing in the New Year:
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Now it seems we are approaching the end of our long era of reliance on church bells. One of the two remaining bell foundries in this country, the nearly five-centuries-old Whitechapel Foundry, is set to close. It constructed just one bell last year, and has no commissions outstanding.
Perhaps its craftsmen do their job too well. Churches need to get their bells replaced only every few centuries: and orders for new bells, despite a global market for the product, are rare. Bells from that ancient foundry ring out from the most famous and admired bell towers in the world: but it will make no more. Just one foundry will remain, situated in Loughborough.
I’m left with a feeling of immeasurable sadness. Church bells are part of this country’s life and heritage: so, if the bells are so precious, mustn’t there somehow always be a group of craftsmen to repair, replace and perpetuate them? And, if they’re not working, how will they hone and perfect their craft, let alone train the next generation?
I’m no steam buff, but noted that, when the magnificent Tornado steam locomotive was recently built as a replica of the great 1940s’ Peppercorn A1 Pacifics, no one in the UK could now construct a steam boiler to the required standard. That work had to go to Germany.
You might suspect that another ancient and traditional craft, stonemasonry, would face the same plight: by contrast, it lives on in our ancient cathedrals and churches where experts are needed replace worn and weathered stones.
Let’s be realistic, though. Who can pay craftsmen to sit around in a foundry with no work to do? Nonetheless, a century from now when, the last foundry closed and the skills lost to humanity, York Minster, Westminster Abbey or a humble country church needs its bells replaced or repaired, where will it look?
We now have the technology to record and preserve all the knowledge and techniques required, so perhaps someone, somewhere far in the future, will succeed in reconstructing our great, ancient medieval peals. We can find instructions on how to do almost anything on Google and YouTube: I hope that will prove true of bell-casting.
I can offer no glib (or workable) solution, but it grieves me to ring the death-knell of our tradition of bells and bell-ringing. How else will we do Tennyson’s bidding?
Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
If our historic bells are eventually stilled, we shall be the poorer for their silence.