English Church bells are unique. Bridport is the home of one of only three bell hanging companies in the UK and Christopher Roper has been to visit them.
No sound is more evocative of the English Countryside than the pealing of church bells on a Sunday Morning, and it is distinctively English, with some 6,000 rings of bells in English Parish churches, and fewer than a thousand more in the rest of the world, generally in places where English bell ringers have taken their art. Of course, bells can be heard in other countries, all over the world, but English bells are, uniquely, hung on wheels, with ropes that hang down into a chamber in the Church tower, where the band of ringers stand. When ready to ring, the bell is upside down, its mouth facing upwards, and unlike bells that simply swing from side to side, the bell ringer in England can control the speed of the bell’s movement through a full circle, ringing both on the upstroke and the down.
Why this style of bell ringing, with its combinatorial musicality, took root in England during the 150 years following dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation is a bit of a mystery, but we know that the art of change ringing began in Norwich at the church of St.Peter Mancroft, and quickly spread to London, and from there across England. With the precipitous decline in church attendance, is it possible that the music of the bells is also threatened? Are young bell ringers learning the ancient skills? My neighbour, Mark Symonds, who is Tower Captain of Whitchurch Canonicorum, showed me the ringing sequences on his mobile phone, which suggested that it was accessible to the digital generation. He started ringing when he was about 14 and one of his uncles said, “You’re coming ringing tonight,” and that was it. Such recruitment methods might not work today, but bell ringing does still run in families.
In order to discover more, I visited Nicholson’s Engineering in Bridport, one of only three bell hanging companies in the U.K. Andrew Nicholson, the Company’s founder and Managing Director, learned his mechanical engineering skills as a school leaver in Bridport’s net and ropemaking industry, but he is also a classical musician, trained at the Royal College of Music, and played in different symphony orchestras as a trombonist, before leaving the full time music business and eventually turning full-time to bell hanging more than 30 years ago. How did that come about?
“By accident, really. I was a lapsed bell ringer and was in Bridport church when the clapper of the tenor bell broke. I thought, ‘I could mend that’.” And that was the seed of Nicholson Engineering, which operates today from a building which used to house generators to supply Bridport with electricity until the National Grid’s soviet-style pylons marched across the Marshwood Vale in the middle of the last century. It’s quite striking how Waterworks and Power Stations from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were built to look like pagan temples or cathedrals, so the repurposing of Bridport’s former power station as a multi-skilled servicing centre for church bells seems quite appropriate.
Multiple and vanishing skills are required. A joiner painstakingly builds the wheels that swing the bells from seasoned English oak and ash. Each bell is bolted to the wheel via a kind of metal yoke, called a headstock, which fits across the top of the bell. That requires a blacksmith and a forge, and sure enough Allan Brittan is working away over glowing coals. Although Nicholson’s do not actually cast bells in Bridport, they do practically everything else, including designing and the tuning of the bells, which is determined by the thickness of the metal around the mouth and at the point the clapper strikes the bell. When the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (at 450 years, Britain’s oldest manufacturing company) tragically closed in 2017, its tuning machines were acquired by Nicholson’s. The tuning used to be calibrated manually, using a set of tuning forks, but is now measured electronically although the human ear is still the final arbiter.
The best material for bell clappers is wrought iron and this allowed Andrew to simply join the heated pieces of the broken clapper. However, no wrought iron has been produced in commercial quantities in this country since 1979, and when people talk about ‘new’ wrought iron gates, for example, they are generally made of mild steel. So, wherever possible, Nicholson’s save scrap wrought iron and recycle it. The virtue of wrought iron is that it is low in carbon and other impurities and therefore malleable. Returning to the question of the health of bell ringing today, I asked Andrew about both the art and the industry. He was quite optimistic on both counts.
Nicholson’s is growing and employs twelve people and between 25% and 30% of their work is for export. On the day I interviewed him in August, he was getting ready to go to Samoa, where he was designing an installation of bells for a new Roman Catholic Church, not an English-style Ring of Bells, but using second-hand bells that Nicholson’s were shipping from England. Much of their work involves the refurbishment and reinstallation of rings of bells, and villages and towns still manage to raise the considerable sums required to strengthen frames, replace wheels, and rehang the bells, which can weigh several tons. Milestone dates like the Millennium or a Coronation can be relied upon to stimulate interest and bring in new business. The largest bell in England is the Olympic Bell, weighing 23 tons, which is the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world, and was cast for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. It was designed by Whitechapel, but cast in the Netherlands.
Andrew is a member of the Lyme Regis band of bell ringers, and says that they have as strong a band of ringers as they have had over the years he has been ringing, with the youngest still a teenager. “If you can drive a car, you can learn to ring,” he said, adding that it helped to have good concentration and a sense of rhythm. Not all ringers are members of the Church of England, though there is a necessary link to the calendar of church services, and a readiness to be available for weddings and other special occasions. For all our sakes, we must hope young ringers continue to be attracted to this ancient art.