Sweet Bells

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are quiet and still now that the waterwheel of the mill no longer turns, the sounds of animals at the Smithfield have been replaced by those of cars and shoppers and Beacon Street hasn’t heard a blacksmith hammering metal in a long time.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.

Sources:

Lichfield: Churches’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 134-155

http://saintchads.weebly.com/the-bells.html

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Appeal of Bells

If you heard the bells of St Michael’s ringing out late yesterday afternoon, you were listening to the launch of a restoration fund for the bells, which are in need of essential maintenance work.

According to the churchwardens accounts, the bells have been rung in the past to mark important national occasions, and in the bell tower there are plaques commemorating some of these and more locally significant events.

The blue plaque commemorates the ringing of bells for the marriage of Charles & Diana; the brown one commemorates a farewell peal for the retirement of Prebendary P Howard in 1947

Bell Tower steps

After negotiating the narrow and windy staircase back down into the church, I had a look around the rest of this lovely building. According to the listed building description, although the church is thought to be 13th century in origin (with a 14thc tower), much of the building dates back to the restoration of 1842/3 by Thomas Johnson. However, the church history booklet (a snip at £1.50!) suggests that whilst the church had undoubtedly needed some restoration work at this time, much of this work was  unnecessary and things of historic interest may have been lost. The booklet goes on to say that some of the restoration work was undone at the end of the 19thc.

Royal coat of arms(1711) above the chancel

The royal arms, as seen above the chancel, are from 1711, and replaced an earlier version. I’ve read that after the reformation, anglican churches were encouraged to display the royal coat of arms somewhere prominent, reminding people that the monarch was also head of the Church of England. The custom of displaying the royal arms continued until Victorian times, but these days can be found in only around 15% of churches. You can read more about the Churches Conservation Trust’s guide to Royal Arms in English churches here.

Having previously read that the Marquis of Donegal had erected a spacious family mausoleum near the chancel, I have to confess I was a little disappointed to find no trace at all of the ostentatious Chichesters of Fisherwick Hall. However, the church booklet explained that the rabbit infested mausoleum had been replaced by a stokehold in the 1842/3 restoration, and the bones buried elsewhere. Seems like none of Donegal’s buildings were destined to last long….

The chap below fared a little better than Donegal. Whilst his bones also ended up elsewhere, his effigy survived the ‘restoration’ and is behind a bench in the chancel. It’s thought to be William de Walton who endowed the church with land and died around 1344. I particularly like the inclusion of the faithful dog watching over his master in death.

One man & his dog – William de Walton’s effigy

The church has several other monuments, including most famously, that of Samuel Johnson’s mother, father and brother.

Back outside in the churchyard,  a woman approached me and asked ‘Are you thinking the same as me?’. Actually I wasn’t, because whilst I was thinking about missing bones, the woman was thinking about missing apples. Apparently in previous years, rich windfall pickings were to be had from the trees growing alongside the footpath. This year it was hard to spot a single fruit.

Peals but no peel

One thing I read in the history booklet, which I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on,  is that around the year 2000, a pump was installed to keep the crypt from flooding. I read in an archaeology report that ‘St Michael’s is a low hill with natural springs’. Could this have anything to do with the flooding?  I’ll explore this ancient burial ground in a post of its own. In the meantime, perhaps we could get the University of Leicester involved in a hunt for William de Walton and the Marquis of Donegal. They seem quite good at that sort of thing…..

Part of the 9 acres making up St Michael’s churchyard

Sources:

St Michael’s Church. Lichfield – A Short History by Rev Carpenter 1947

A short account of the city and close of Lichfield – Thomas George Lomax, John Chappel Woodhouse & William Newling

Archaeological Desktop Survey OSA Report No. OSAO6DTO2 (Onsite Archaeology January 2006)