One Saturday morning, as I sat reading in Lichfield Library, I heard a clip clopping in the street outside. Standing up to look out of the window, I saw a horse and carriage making its way up Bird St. It occurred to me that this was a sound and a sight that people would not have batted an eyelid nor an eardrum at in previous centuries, yet to my twenty first century ears, it was something so out of the normal it warranted me putting down a good book to have a shufty.
More often than not, when we explore the way our towns and cities have changed, it’s the visual changes that we concentrate on – old photographs, old maps, landscape features etc. Yet the sounds of places change too e.g. the pools at Leomansley are quiet and still now that the waterwheel of the mill no longer turns, the sounds of animals at the Smithfield have been replaced by those of cars and shoppers and Beacon Street hasn’t heard a blacksmith hammering metal in a long time. However, amidst the changes, there is also consistency in the sounds that surround us.
The tower at St Chad’s church houses four bells. Three of them were cast in the seventeenth century and the oldest of these three dates to 1625 with the inscription ‘DOMINO CANTICUM CANTATE NOVUM’. The second is from 1664 and declares ‘GOD SAVE THIS CHURCH AND REALM THE KING IN WAR, I.C.1664. Even the youngest of the three, featuring the names Ralph Low and Richard Grimley, is from 1670 meaning that the people of the parish and those who are passing by have heard these bells ring out for well over three hundred years. The fourth bell is even older still, although no one can agree on just how old. An article in the Lichfield Mercury in August 1936 described it as ‘England’s Oldest Bell’, and gives it a date of 1033. As it stands, the country’s oldest inscribed bell is believed to be the Gargate Bell at Caversfield Church, Oxfordshire, dating to c.1215AD and the country’s oldest dated bell (1245AD) is at Lisset Church in Easy Yorkshire. Therefore if this date of 1033AD were true, we would probably have a another Lichfield Entry in the Guiness Book of Records (to go alongside the largest curry ever, cooked by Abdul Salam of Eastern Eye on Bird St). Yet, the St Chad’s website itself casts doubt on this claim as there wasn’t a tower to put a bell in at the church at this time! Another date suggested for the bell is 1255 but the County History also disputes this and says that it was probably cast at Nottingham c.1500AD. There is an inscription on the bell +O BEATE MARIAA.A.R. and some numerals that no-one can read, hence the enigma. I’d love to see it. Not that I would be any help at all in solving the mystery but you know I’d just like to have a look at it. See I’m not satisfied with simply hearing it – there’s that visual dominance of history taking over again.
I have actually been at the other end of the bell rope. After I stumbled upon a practice session on another Saturday morning, I took up a kind offer to have a go at ringing one of the St Chad’s bells myself. Whilst at the time I was too terrified of having a campanology related mishap to fully appreciate the moment, afterwards I thought of all the people that had rung those bells in the past, and all those who had heard them and the message they were conveying. Next time, you’re passing, stop for a moment and listen too.
Lichfield: Churches’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 134-155