The bells! The bells!
If I have a ringing sound in my ears then it's perfectly understandable, as Mr B and I spent yesterday afternoon in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry,
where Big Ben and America's Liberty Bell were cast. What better credentials could any company have, I ask you.
This was another "behind the scenes" visit organised for our little band of Questers but we had
all travelled to London under our own steam. Some went by car, others left home early to fit in a visit to the poppies at the Tower of London. Mr B and I - well, where travel arrangements are concerned, it was not my Finest Hour. Weekend train travel is never
trouble-free in my view but I did think we had plenty of time to get to Victoria, take the District Line to Aldgate East, maybe even have a spot of lunch before the start of our tour. Wrong! Or, as Mr B put it, why on earth did it never occur to me to leave
on an earlier train?
I don't think it was All My Fault. The train to Victoria ran twenty-five minutes late, due to the fact that there were two wheelchair-bound passengers requiring special assistance at various
stations. Which is not a cause to grumble, because I was glad to see how well the station staff accommodated them - but does make the point that one should always build a little more lee-way into travel arrangements and not think too much about an extra hour's
In order to jolly things along, I kept up a running commentary on how lucky we were to have secured seats on both mainline and tube trains but this didn't cut much ice with Mr B who says that in future
he will be taking charge of our travel arrangements. Which doubtless means that on the days when we have trips out we will have to be out of bed with the Dawn Chorus and will be queuing at the door of our destination before the first members of staff have
turned up. Better early than turn up late, Mr B will point out.
Except that we weren't late - we just weren't early. Plus we we were hungry and thirsty, on account of not having time to grab a bite to eat.
Fortunately we had a treat in store. Even if not of the edible variety. Our affable guide seemed extremely knowledgeable about the company's history, the casting of bells and their tuning. No wonder - it turned out that not only was he a tour guide but he
was also a descendant of Arthur Hughes, founder from 1904 - 1916 and both owner and managing director of this, the oldest manufacturing company in the whole of Britain. He had a dryly wicked sense of humour which he needed, from time to time, when responding
to some of the more inane questions from our Merry Band.
One of my favourite stories he told us was of an order placed for a replica of the Liberty Bell in 2001. He was surprised that the Mayor himself was
his main contact point and one day decided to ask why he didn't just leave the business dealings to a town clerk. The Mayor replied that he couldn't quite believe that he was placing exactly the same order, with exactly the same company as had been the case
250 years previously. How could he possibly leave anyone else to do it? It was, our guide couldn't resist pointing out, not the same price as 250 years before...
We found out all about the casting business
- and the exact mixture of soil, goat's hair and good old horse dung required for the all-important loam. These are important considerations, you know. We visited the tuning shop - did you know a bell, once perfectly cast, never goes out of tune? Up in the
carpentry shop there was a wall of plaques bearing the names, ages and dates of workmates who had died in service.
So I have been thinking about bells. Church bells, school bells, the bells that used
to summon the "downstairs" staff to serve their "upstairs" masters. Bells must surely be one of the very oldest and most splendidly traditional of communication methods. No wonder bells were produced for the Diamond Jubilee barge; no wonder a magnificent Olympic
bell was cast and struck - by Bradley Wiggins no less - at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics. Yes, you're right - all cast and tuned to perfection by the staff of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
it is a dying craft. There are only two such foundries in Britain, five in the world. There's not much call for bells these days because, of course, they last. They're just too good for their own good. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry has diversified into handbells
but the demand is just not there. We need more bells!
Before we left we gathered in the yard and our guide told us we couldn't possibly leave without hearing the sound of a swung bell - proceeding to sound
a magnificent bell, just for us. The echo stayed with me for ages.
Christmas is coming and one of the carols I am sure we will be singing will be that old favourite "Ding, dong, merrily on high."
I'm willing to wager those merry bells were cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry!