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.
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.