The English bellringing tradition is ancient. The country’s first bells were associated with Celtic Christianity and were flat sided and welded rather than bronze-cast. They were rung by hand and probably sounded clonky, like a cow-bell. The skills of bronze casting that developed transformed the purity and clarity of bell sounds, and the mechanism of a wheel-mounted bell, perfected around the time of the Reformation, enabled bells to ring individually in a predetermined order. This is a particularly English form of ringing. Patterns of ringing are called out by the Ringing Captain, or must be learned by heart. Some learned sequences or ‘peals’ involve hours of high concentration from a team and can be ruined with a single mistake.
The sound of a bell carries miles across fields and was a key method of communication. Bells sounded the curfew, acted as a call to arms, a warning of invasion, and in some English churches alerted parishioners to the presence of vermin. Churchwardens once held the vermin bounty which was paid out when an unfortunate dead fox or badger was presented. Bells called parishioners to worship, rang for weddings and occasional funerals, and tolled on half and full muffles to mourn the passing of monarchs and royalty.
Why am I talking about bells? Some of you may know that I am a church bellringer and that the history of bells has become a recent focus of mine. There is a textile connection too, so please read until the end.
In my small Devon town of Hatherleigh we have a very beautiful set of eight bells, recast in 1929 at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry by Mears and Stainbank. They are set in an oak frame now distinctly past its prime and the bells need some attention too, although they do not need to be recast. The necessary restoration is going to cost about £75,000 ($US91.58 in today’s conversion rate).
I have been involved in an intensive fundraising campaign since February and have been learning about the history of bells, bronze-casting and our town’s bells.
On the night of 16th – 17th July 2022 I will be camping in the church tower to raise funds for our appeal. The name for it was coined by our Vicar, Reverend Leigh Winsbury, who of course has to give permission for such japes on his patch. Thank you, Leigh.
Is sleeping overnight in the tower such a big deal? Not really, unless, like me, you have a lifelong fear of spiders (I’m not so bothered about mice, bats, or strange sounds in the graveyard, although that may change on the 16th…). There are a few hefty spiders in the tower and I undertake to co-exist with, and not squish, my eight-legged dormitory mates. So if you’d like to sponsor me as I face my fears, please follow the links at the bottom of the page. A pdf of our fundraising leaflet is attached so you can see what this is all about. You can also visit our GoFundMe site, but if you are kind enough to leave a donation there please leave a spidery comment too, because it’s our generic fundraising page and I’d like to know how much money my particular stunt has raised.
GoFundMe page for our project
The Textile Connection
There is a textile connection to our bells because the tower in which they hang was built at the time of major medieval south-west wool prosperity, in the 1300s. Many very fine English churches, such as Lavenham and Northleach, were entirely built from wool money. The money for building Hatherleigh’s tower alongside an existing structure may have come from donations from wool-wealthy parishioners, or through church tithes. A wooden spire was added in the 1400s. We don’t yet know when the first bells rang in Hatherleigh, but by 1553 there were three.
I have been making small keyring giveaways for the first 25 people that donate £10 and they are made from our old bell rope. The rope has been washed and is probably of hemp, but bellropes can be of flax and it’s hard for me to tell the difference. Modern ropes are sometimes a blend of natural and synthetic fibre.
If you live in the UK, donate £10 and would like a keyring, please send me a screenshot confirming your donation. Include your postal address and email me at email@example.com
The bellringers would of course be grateful for any amount donated, however small.
Links, follows, media
Blogpost on fibre and bellropes from 2013 here
My Instagram: @whitworthisabella
Hatherleigh Bells Instagram: @eightbells8
GoFundMe If you donate here, please leave a spidery comment!