Not quite either of the belfries within my Beating the Bounds square mile, (though I did sing in the choir there for a couple of years,) but St Andrew's Buckland Monachorum near enough, because all these local churches were being built at about the same time. It is said that if you travelled around these parts in the mid-15th century you would have tripped over a half-built church every few miles. A number of them have a similar tower design topped out with very distinctive pinnacles, the same team working round and adding the icing on the church cake.
Tower building was all about attracting the eye and announcing grandeur and importance, a way of providing the people with an experience of heaven on earth. It was about rivalry between villages too, and each tower an example of the care and expense lavished on their church by the community. Rarely did those communities number more than 200 people, and towers were expensive additions which according to John Scott must have eaten up a huge proportion of the local wealth.
I'm not sure I had ever given much thought to who would have paid for these, but as John Scott affirms the main motive was the glory of God and we do the builders and the benefactors a great injustice if we allow 21st century cynicism to doubt it. Look what a glorious legacy they have left us, and sadly what an endless struggle it can be to raise the funds to maintain them now.
I had found John Scott's book in the reference library a while back, entitled Towers and Bells of Devon. Two hefty volumes in fact, and my interest in all things bells piqued by the discovery of a book which should, if the title is anything to go by, have been enough to send me to sleep. Far from it, all utterly fascinating. A meticulous history of each church tower in the Shire with date, size, weight, note and name of each bell ... bit like a very great big baby, but with a note of dedications and inscriptions as well. I hadn't known about the inscriptions but I discovered that the bells in our village church bear little gems like...
'Prosperity to this Parish'
' Tenor I to the Church the Living Call and to the Grave I summon All' .
This latter I assume a reference to the tolling of the sonourous Passing Bell, the death knell that seems to be getting a good work out as I read The Nine Tailors.
So at our allotted time there we were, first in the queue, Bookhound leading the way up the stone steps to the top of the seventy foot tower, built using local rubble and granite, and already we discover a design fault because though I could just about squeeze up the stairs, Bookhound found his top half was around the spiral with his legs still to waiting to catch up. If you look carefully you might just be able to see me 'going round the bend' this on the descent..
Tiny windows on the ascent giving a clue that we were rising higher, just in case the knees weren't telling us as much too..
The Buckland Monachorum tower design, with its high pinnacles at the limits of practicability, sacrificed strength for elegance, though mercifully the first four bells hung all stayed put. However when two more were added in 1723, within ten years and with repeated ringing, the tower was seriously weakened necessitating major repairs. It would seem luck that the whole lot didn't come crashing down.
Now that all makes me want to read The Spire by William Golding and The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I have started both books and failed to finish them, but (sorry *SPOILER* alert) don't the towers collapse in both??
In 1858, it was discovered that the wooden bell cage had rotted and that someone had misguidedly driven wedges between the timbers and the walls of the tower.
This had caused fractures in the tower as a result of the constant vibration. More worryingly it was not until 1905 that the bells were re-hung in a new wood frame, before being re-cast in 1947 and situated in the metal frame visible, with two tenor bells added to make a glorious peal of eight bells.
Eight bells can ring 40,320 changes which would take eighteen hours. just saying in case you were wondering. I think the sum might 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 etc, someone will work it through.
It's hard to imagine how on earth any work is done in a belfry. The space is seriously limited and claustrophobic, to say nothing of dangerous, and I have yet to figure how you get a hefty bell in and out unless it is somehow lowered down through here, the chamber below housing the clock mechanism.
Unusually the ringers gallery below the clock chamber overlooks the nave of the church which I am not sure I had ever realised in those years that I occupied the choir stalls...
and like many such galleries has some wonderful signs and notices in place. This little warning from 1755... (if you click on these pictures they should enlarge)
and this more recent one...
Imagine the clock chiming in and messing up the changes.
And so to the ringing, of which I know nothing beyond that which I have learned from the authorial campanology of Dorothy L.Sayers, so I am grateful to that Coronation edition of Picture Post for the low down.. or should that be the high down...or maybe the up down.
The ringers of St Paul's reveal the secrets for the man on the street down below in 1953. Basically you must learn how to pull on a rope to achieve certain results and without 'music' as it were, all has to be done from memory. You musn't move your feet while the rope's end is on the floor or you'll be swept off them and dumped back down with two broken ankles, and not surprisingly in this case the whole process requires absolute concentration.
World records were few back then. I am not sure about now but the 1922 feat of 21,363 changes in twelve hours with not a single ringer taking a break (no, not even for 'that') seems remarkable and knocks Lord Peter Wimsey's meagre nine hours into touch. Apparently records were rare because no one wanted to listen to bells ringing for thirteen hours.
For anyone who hasn't read The Nine Tailors, the Picture Post piece ends with another spoiler so look away now...
'Disillusioning fact is that even the combined noise of St Paul's twelve bells at their loudest wouldn't really kill the victim of a detective story, locked up in the belfry. It might make his ears tingle - not more.'