Ringing The Changes


Not a lot of people know that in many an English churchyard nests a hidden secret.

Something which has been buried for centuries, yet was never living. Something which, when it was current, drew in the whole village community, young and old.

Yet many have been lost to us for centuries.

The churchyards hide furnaces.

And the furnaces point to great pits dug in the ground; not to receive grisly remains, but to enable the founding of a church bell.

Once upon a time, the creation of a village bell was a village business. You waited until a bellfounder wandered into the village and then everyone would pile into the churchyard and dig a huge hole.

Why? because you cast bells in a hole in the ground.

Men would construct the furnaces to heat the bell-metal – a bronze alloy – and pour them into huge moulds, set into the gaping holes the villagers had dug. And when they were cold and ready, they would be finished by hand.

Canterbury’s bell and Lincoln Cathedral’s Great Tom were both cast in their respective cathedral closes.

The Tsar Bell – the biggest bell ever cast- sits on a plinth,never having rung a peal in its long life. It was the third in a generation of huge signature bells which were destined to hang in the Kremlin.

Russia was never one to do anything by halves. In the 1730s a ten-metre pit was dug, and the walls reinforced by rammed earth; a clay mould was put in and, after three years of attempts, the bell cast.

Alas: a great fire at the Kremlin damaged the temporary wooden supports for the bell and men threw water over it to damp it down. What should have helped, created great cracks in the monstrous creation, and a fragment broke off.

The Russians know the power of a good story; and so the bell stands, still, not far from where it was created, a broken fragment sitting by its rim, or mouth.


Image via Wikipedia

It towers above tourists, the size of a building, creating awe and stories in its wake. It does not bear thinking about, how many it would take to peal such a behemoth.

Most campanologists choose slightly smaller bells.

Some do it for the pure joyous mathematics. They call it ringing the changes– six bells can achieve 720 different combinations, while eight bells have 40,320. And for a church lucky enough to have 10 bells, 3,628,800 combinations are possible.

Others do it for the musicianship. Bells have overtones. When you ring one you don’t get the pure note, but a note laced with other harmonious ghost-notes we call harmonics. They are made to a strict formula which makes one note dominant, but other notes hum in the background, an ancient sound which comes from another time.

Sill others do it for the companionship: all over England there are groups of bell-ringers who work in such tight teamwork that their camaraderie is second to none.

And some bells ring on their own.

Today, in Britain, one bell takes centre stage.

Not rung by human hand, but by the miracle of  an efficient clockwork mechanism, it is the bell by which we live the rhythm of our lives here in England. Its chimes are broadcast live on our talk radio station, Radio 4,  every day at key hours. It has presence, and gravity, and pomp. And we all hold it most dear.

I speak, of course of Big Ben.

We’ll all wait by the television or the radio- or next to Big Ben himself – tonight at half eleven or so. And that first great chime, grandiloquent and imperious, will signal the popping open of a bottle or, the raucous letting off of streamers, or the tipsy kazoo fanfare, or a triumphant mistletoe clinch or just a bleary Happy New Year from beneath a duvet.

We’ll all be listening, ready, for the passing of time.

As delineated by our favourite, bombastic, paternalistic bell.


56 thoughts on “Ringing The Changes

  1. Dear old Ben – I do hope the older Shrewsdays manage to stay up to hear him peal the change: Happy New Year, he’ll proclaim – and I second that. My best wishes for an interesting and intellectually adventurous 2013 Kate 🙂

  2. I will remember this tonight as the bells ring out locally to celebrate. Thanks for a fascinating year, Kate. I wish you and yours peace, health and happiness, and look forward to what you have in store for us in 2013

    1. 😀 Managed to squeeze in one more before 2012 breathed its last, I see, Col! I think it’s because Ben chimes in every hour, all year, that the final moments are so dramatic. Happy new year to all the family. I hope it’s a wonderful one!

      1. You’d think after doing the twelve 365 times it would become boring, but that one is always special!
        I do hope it is likewise for you and yours!

      1. Yes, officially retired last Friday and now it’s “All Rotary All the Time” and it will indeed be a very busy 18 months. I would not have it any other way.

  3. Another secret is why Presbyterian and Congregational churches in American colonial times had no stoves for heat during the winter as late as the early 1800’s in some places. People then and now might think this was to keep people cold and awake to pay attention to hours long sermons. The fact of the matter was that old New Englanders lived in constant fear of attack by Indians, the French, the Spanish and wild animals. The village church was where the gun powder was stored.

    1. Indeed, Carl: churches have always been something of a stronghold, haven’t they? During WWII no-one was allowed to ring the bells. If the Nazis had invaded, they would have rung loud and clear to warn everyone.

  4. Wonderful post to “ring the change” from this year to the next . . . all without ever leaving the NOW.

    Burt Wolf says that how we live on New Year’s Eve sets the stage for the coming year. So . . .

    On this fine day, be of good cheer
    Set a positive tone for the coming year
    Laugh when you can, eat when you must
    Take out the trash, and sweep up the dust
    Greet the new year with a smile and you’ll see
    That happiness abounds when we “just be.”

    Happy New Year, Kate!
    Thanks for your always entertaining posts. 😀

    1. I love handbells: and they are so much safer than the big variety. There was a story in November about a woman who had to be released by firefighters after she got caught in bell ropes -just six weeks after starting to learn how to bell ring!

      Happy New Year to you both 🙂

  5. Your post reminds me of the beautiful sounds of one of my favorite Christmas instrumentals, “Choral of the Bells.”
    I’ve seen and heard the Big Ben and look forward to doing so again soon. Thank you Kate for your wonderful stories.

      1. Thank you, Kate. Your version comes closest to what I love about a piece I heard during a commercial several years ago.
        Here’s another one, on cello (without the bells, sadly) … but it’s in beautiful vistas. The guy looks absolutely chilled to the bone. Not sure why he chose to put himself – or his cello – thru that. But it’s very well done. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9GtPX6c_kg
        By my calculations, I’d venture to say you’re already in the New Year. Happy, happy New Year, Kate … to you and yours.

  6. Naturally, ringing in the New Year via that esteemed landmark clock sounds infinitely more sophisticated by you, Kate. Over here in Gotham City, we just have that gaudy ball drop before the yokels, primarily tourists, in Times Square, the exact place no self-respecting New Yorker will be anywhere near at the stroke of midnight. Happy New Year to you, Phil, the kids and the Shrewsday critters!

  7. A very happy new year to the Shrewsday Manor inhabitants. As we in America are fretting about “fiscal cliffs” or “fiscal curbs,” depending on individual perspectives, enjoy Big Ben and wave to us as we dive over like lemmings!

    1. I think you can tune in on the BBC World service, Kathy; but of course it would be at our New Year, not at yours. Ours is fast approaching. Nearly half past nine. I wonder if I’ll stay awake that long?

    1. I remember it well,Ian, Great post: it was in the back of my mind when writing this, but I couldn’t remember where I had read it. And now you have enlightened me. Thank you; and a happy New Year to you

  8. Until now I’d never noticed the Latin (?) at the bottom edge of the clock. Do you know what it says? All I can tell for certain is that it isn’t tempus fugit.
    Perhaps Google can tell me.

    Happy New Year, Kate!

  9. I missed Big Ben live but heard him ring in 2013 via BBC video. What a wonderful link between past and future. Thanks for this and all your posts–you’ve opened a new world for me.

    Happy New Year to all the Shrewsdays!

  10. Enjoyed the information about the bells! I would have never thought they could cast one as big as the Russian bell. Interesting!

  11. I really enjoyed learning something about the furnaces and casting the bells. I must admit I’ve never given the topic a bit of thought, yet now I’m quite interested. I was listening to your Radio 4 yesterday! With the time differences I was aware that your new year was “ringing in” well ahead of mine, and thought of you. I’m an Internet radio enthusiast, and listen to several stations that come through and enlighten me with interesting stories from Britain. I did not catch Big Ben, however. Timing must have been a bit off, but I am going to pay close attention now. How fun!

    1. Shall I confess here that I slept right through New Year for the first time in my adult life, Debra! I wouldn’t have heard Big Ben if he were right next to me 😀

  12. Didn’t know about the Tsar Bell: thanks for this! Your piece reminded me about the London 2012 Olympic Bell, and I realised that although a musician I didn’t know much about it.

    Apparently a foot wider than the largest in Britain (the Great Paul at St Paul’s Cathedral cast by Taylor’s in 1881), it’s been claimed as the largest pitched bell in Europe. At 27-tonnes (though I’ve seen it claimed as 23 tonnes, or is that 23 tons?) it’s larger than the 13.5-tonne Big Ben cast in 1856 at London’s Whitechapel Foundry. Why 27 tonnes? Apparently it’s linked to the fact that the opening ceremony was on the 27th of the month…

    As far as I can see, however, the Olympic bell wasn’t cast at Whitechapel’s but in Holland.

    1. Now that’s a collection of facts I didn’t know, Chris…although I’m amazed we couldn’t cast our own bell after two thousand years of practice 😀 I have the Whitechapel foundry on my list of places I want to see this year…

      So where does the Olympic bell hang now? Is it in the village?

  13. Beautifully told Kate 🙂 Sadly, Big Ben is no longer the heartbeat for the nation by which all other clocks are set – its own accuracy is controlled by a Caesium clock and Radio transmitter at Anthorn in Cumbria. Somehow it lacks the romance of the Big Ben clock adjusted by pennies and halfpennies to maintain the time.

    1. Pennies and halfpennies? Were they really used to adjust Big Ben, Martin? How fabulous!
      But the world travels at a faster pace than it used to. I’m not too worried about Ben consorting with Caesium. If it keeps him in action, I’m all for it.

  14. I found your interesting blog via the recommendation of another blogger I follow. I learned much about the art (science? hobby? sport? endeavor?) of bell ringing several years ago when I read Dorothy Sayers’ novel The Nine Tailors. Also, I notice the place you live is called Windsor Forest. The southside Savannah, Georgia, neighborhood I live in is named Windsor Forest! I am enjoying reading your bits of formerly obscure historical matter. Keep it up!

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