Actually I'm using this quotation from Tennyson's In Memoriam (section CV) a little ahead of season. It's about the bells that ring out the old year and ring in the new. We aren't quite there yet; there will be Christmas bells first. But his lovely lyric illustrates the emotional power of church-bells.
Last Sunday afternoon I was in Gloucester, on a crisp, sunny day; the cathedral tower was bathed in light and the blue sky burned through the fretwork of its turrets. From that tower cascaded peal after peal of bells, rung by the bell-ringers, as every Sunday from one-thirty to three pm. I stood there with the glorious sound washing over me, and was grateful for the bells, for the ringers, for this ancient sound that has been part of our landscape for so many long centuries.
The imminent closing of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the birthplace of Big Ben, the Philadelphia Liberty Bell, and other bells all across the world, prompted a brilliant piece by writer Jane Shilling HERE. She starts with "Ding dong merrily" and ends up quoting "the great Nigel Molesworth's" version of Donne's "It tolls for thee;" in between, she shows the importance of bells in our culture. Will our grandchildren, she asks, hear as many bells as we do? Ancient villages are being swallowed by sprawl, church congregations age and decline; "the knowledge of how to ring the bells may vanish along with the skills of casting them."
Yes, there are still many campanology-lovers and bell-ringing groups, thank goodness, and they are finding new recruits. I recently met an American writer who now lives in Scotland, and, with her Scottish husband, rings bells there. There are some bell-towers in the States, and active bell-ringing groups, but the ringing of church bells isn't a part of the national soundscape there, as it is, or was, in Britain. My American husband, one day at Stow-on-the-Wold just after a wedding, was sceptical when I said the peals were made by real people pulling on bell-ropes at that very moment. But it was so. (And the ring of eight bells we were hearing is actually the heaviest in Gloucestershire. Its oldest bells date from the 1600s).
Change-ringing began in Britain. Christopher Howse, in a brilliant piece HERE prompted by the simultaneous ringing of all the country's bells for the 2012 London Olympics, writes, "Change ringing sets bells free; paradoxically by a strict arithmetic formula, like a complicated knitting pattern." I read thIs essay while living out of England, and found my eyes welling with hapless nostalgia. By a lovely serendipity, on the same very day (reading about the mid-nineteenth-century for my new novel), I learnt that Gabriele Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's Italian father, marvelled that in his newly-adopted city of London, "The very bells play tunes!" (The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe.)
Howse quotes "Church-bells beyond the stars heard," from George Herbert's extraordinary poem "Prayer." And in a 2009 piece about bells HERE he cites another marvellous poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two of my most beloved poets *; their poetry, the bells, the landscape....all this is inextricably mixed in our heritage, interconnected, like that complicated knitting pattern.
Howse's 2009 essay was a lament on the closure of "the other British bell foundry", Taylors. So now, if Whitechapel Foundry is closing too, does it mean there will be nowhere left in Britain where bells are cast?
That would be cause to ring the mourning-bell.
*(in fact, ahem, that church-bells phrase is an epigraph to my poem "Fabric," in my collection appearing with Oversteps Books next year. End of shameless plug).