St John’s in Cirencester has the oldest ring of twelve bells in the world. The tower’s borne the weight of twelve bells for 299 years. Only Bow Bells – the pride of Cockneys – matched that, until they were destroyed in the Blitz! And there’s a thirteenth bell, which is not rung in the peals of change-ringing nor as part of the Carillion tune, ‘Faith of Our Fathers, Taught of Old’, heard at three hourly intervals in the day. The thirteenth bell is tuned ‘flat’ in comparison with the others and was originally used as a fire alarm and for occasions on which a single bell is rung.
Of course, older bells exist. They started out made of pottery in the Far East about five thousand years ago. Apart from being a way of getting attention, it’s not certain what they were meant for. Later when Buddhists made bells from bronze, they weren’t just to call people together, but merely hearing the sounds they made could help people meditate.
In the western world, Christian bell ringing is used both for celebration and solemn occasions, and bells are often used to mark the hours in conjunction with clocks installed in the towers of churches. It’s likely the first bells heard in Cirencester were introduced to call the Abbey’s Canons to prayer when services were held, but just as ‘Big Ben’ – the name of the bell in the tower of the Houses of Parliament in London – rings to help people keep time for non-religious duties and appointments, so bells have been used to tell country people when to start and finish their work.
In some countries bells are rung twice in close succession at specific times of day. The times can also vary seasonally, because they mark dawn and dusk. These are bells for agricultural workers, and are often hung in farm buildings. Like the handbells used in schools within living memory, they can also indicate breaks for lunch, especially where a longer break is necessary because it’s too hot for agricultural work. The reason for ringing twice is to enable workers to hear the bell at the first ring, and to count the chimes at the second.
Bells had a more sinister purpose in times of pandemics, and during the Black Death handbells would often be sounded accompanied by calls to ‘bring out your dead’! Bells continued to be used for emergencies, and until the nineteen sixties, fire, police and ambulance vehicles used bells until sirens were introduced.
The bells of Christmas need a team of ringers, and are all about coming together. For more than twenty months of our recent past we haven’t been able to gather for so many activities, and perhaps even the folks who complained about the noise, having moved to Cirencester, will be glad to have heard the peals of bells which have returned recently to share the celebrations of weddings at St John’s.
Last Christmas was a muted occasion. Perhaps this year we’ll be able to get together and make a joyful noise. Let’s hope so. In the last century not only were there Carol Singers going from house to house, but many villages also had handbell choirs, playing familiar melodies to brighten crisp winter nights. Sadly, in the Friday Antiques Market at the Corn Hall, a set of handbells have been for sale. Few handbell choirs remain in today’s towns or villages. Let’s hope that, looking to the future, we can get back together and find the party spirit all year round, to carry a Merry Christmas forward into a Happy New Year. Next month, Janus, the Roman God of gates and doors, traditionally looks both to past and future.
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