Eight centuries ago the City could claim 126 churches plus convents, priories and abbeys. Today there are still over forty churches, plus St Paul’s Cathedral. Not all have bells or bells that are working. But with a resident population of 9000 today, the City sustains the same ratio as 800 years ago. It is a testament to resilience. Some churches serve multiple congregations. Additionally, towers have survived and been repurposed.
Looking more widely, 5200 churches in England have rings or peals of multiple bells and many more churches have at least one bell. Elsewhere in the British Isles a further 200 churches swell the total. How many bells does this add up to? Most popular are peals of six bells, to be found in approximately 2700 churches. In a further 1,700 there are full octaves of eight bells. The largest of the bells ‘the tenor bell’ can weigh in at half a ton. By the time you get to twelve bells the total is down to less than a hundred locations. At St Magnus the Martyr just down from the Monument twelve new bells were installed in 2009.
‘Big Ben’ is over thirteen and a half tons. The London Olympics bell for the opening of the Games weighed 23 tons and rang at 9pm on the 27th July 2012. It was cast in the Netherlands. One in Brazil, cast in Poland, is 55 tons and 13 feet tall.
Bells and ringings in the City often herald events. St James Garlickhythe has eight bells installed in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen’s Accession. Bells have bound communities for centuries, ‘Born in the Sound of Bow Bells’ defines Cockneys, ‘bell ringers’ in rhyming slang denotes fingers. ‘Give us a bell’ means call me on the phone. Today, ironically, bell towers often house mobile phone equipment.
On walks along the ‘frog and toad’ (road) a sharp ‘butchers’ (‘butcher’s hook’ – look) is recommended. Be mindful of times eg lunch hour congestion, narrow pavements, care crossing roads, personal responsibility for safety, for children and for any pets such as dogs. Have regard for likely weather issues and look out for road closures, parades, demonstrations, filming and other gatherings.
Bells feature in popular culture – ‘Oranges and Lemons’, ‘Cock Robin’, ‘Ding Dong Bell’. ‘Quasimodo’, Victor Hugo’s bell ringer of Notre Dame may have had his fictional birth on Quasimodo Sunday 5th April 1467. A new peal for the 550th anniversary, might have offered a tribute in 2017, perhaps it should have been called ‘Hugo First’. Shakespeare’s, ‘The Tempest’, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Ringing for Victoria In Excelsis Gloria’ and others have referenced bells.
Come on a streamlined ‘Oranges & Lemons’ City walk with resounding echoes celebrating centuries of recovery and renewal. City of London Guide and writer Lester Hillman, who has spent decades leading bell related initiatives, offers new takes on the famous rhyme, making it ring true for the 21st Century.
Start at Monument Underground Station. Finish vicinity of St Paul’s Cathedral. Allow about one hour, moderate walking.
St Magnus the Martyr and St Margaret Fish Street, near the Monument, are reminders of the Great Fire of London with churches as Fire Stations, their bells signalling warning, towers for ladder storage and congregations for charity and mutual support. Signs survive in the streetscape denoting insurance and firefighting measures.
There are bell-associated expressions such as ‘bell weather’, ‘Knock seven bells’ denotes enthusiastic ringing and ‘sound as a bell’ suggests good order. The medieval accounts of nearby St Mary at Hill detail fish suppers and dinners. The bells rang enthusiastically for Henry VIII but then protracted repairs, legal wrangles and costs had to be overcome. They rang too for the Catholic Queen Mary, albeit with a careful note that the Bishop had instructed that they be rung. Five centuries ago their bells were being dragged back and forward to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This closed 12th June 2017 but a fierce ‘ding dong’ has raged concerning future hotel use.
‘I owe you five farthings’ is the opening of ‘Oranges and Lemons’. It then echoes around London with ancient debt recovery problems, unauthorised financial advice, dubious jurisdictions, trading in withdrawn currencies and even the prospect of capital punishment. A 21st Century update seems overdue and is offered at the end of this walk.
George Orwell’s ‘1984’, published in 1949 has recurring references to ‘Oranges and Lemons’ (here three farthings rather than five). ‘The Old Dark House’, a 1963 film in the style of the ‘Addams Family’, features ‘Oranges and Lemons’ with chiming clocks set to explode.
From St Clement’s, via Clement Lane and past Bell Inn Yard, is Whittington Avenue – ‘Turn again Whittington’ is the medieval text message rung out by Bow Bells. It has been a mainstay of pantomime for generations. Here international public health challenges are faced, ingenious solutions found with eventual success. There are 21st century echoes.
Lloyds of London nearby is an institution focused on insurance. Its atrium centrepiece is the Lutine Bell dating from 1799. Today the bell fulfils ceremonial roles but previously it rang when a ship was lost. Lloyds marries expertise in risk and danger, knowledge and research. It harnesses mutual co-operation for recovery and confidence building objectives.
St Katharine Cree nearby offers another ‘Oranges and Lemons’ verse, ‘Maids in white aprons say the bells of St Katharine’s’. Although it does not trip off the tongue quite like other verses it may hint at something of the rich regional accents of medieval London and diversity, commerce and constant renewal around Leadenhall Market.
St Peter’s Cornhill delivers more ‘Oranges and Lemons’ insights, ‘Pancakes and fritters’ ‘Old shoes and slippers’ go the rhymes, with links to trades from baking to cobblers. A ‘Bellering Cake’ was so called because its plums were so few and far between that they had to beller to be noticed.
City bells have global dimensions. St Michael’s Cornhill received twelve new bells, installed 3rd April 2011. Some of the old bells are now resounding on the other side of the world, installed in the Swan Tower, Perth, Australia. St Michael’s has a ‘Blessing of the City Service’, with singing from the top of the Tower. Climbing the stairs offers a rare glimpse of the bell ringing areas.
Bow bells rang out the fourteenth century medieval text message to Dick Whittington on Highgate Hill. It signalled triumph over adversity, with trading and family success. Whittington’s Will dates from 5th September 1421. We have reached a 600th anniversary and his benefaction and legacy continues to deliver charity and funds for good causes. Much of this is dispensed by the City of London’s ‘City Cash’ fund. The Lord Mayor’s parade passes by here on Cheapside and showcases many of the key stakeholders.
‘‘I do not know says the Great Bell of Bow’ in ‘Oranges and Lemons’ alludes to coping with uncertainty. ‘Born in the sound of Bow Bells’ defines Cockney credentials. Apart from its own rhyming slang being a Cockney engendered a powerful sense of community. Vibrant traditions of welfare still survive. The Church is strongly associated with the ‘Pearly Kings and Queens’ (Cockney royalty actively involved in charity fund raising and support).
Bells have for centuries has a role in times of danger. The bell of St Mary le Bow served as the medieval ‘Curfew Bell’ for the City. In the Second World War the Church had a central role in the broadcast of the Bow Bell time signals, uniting resolve even in the darkest hours of the conflict.
The Cathedral bells include ‘Great Paul’ weighing more than 16 tons and cast at Loughborough. Ringers may be glimpsed in the North West Tower when the Cathedral’s peal of 12 bells are rung. In 2018 restoration of these was initiated with an estimated cost of £30,000 per bell.
In the gardens South of the Cathedral the bust of John Donne remembers the writer of the line ‘For whom the bell tolls’.
Nearby is a memorial to fire fighters commemorating the losses of life, the sacrifices and their role in recovery. Fire bells and warning bells on engines rang out in the World War II Blitz.
New Bell Yard, Carter Lane and references to ‘The Bell PH’ are way markers to City expertise in bells and the literature of Shakespeare. A quote from the ‘Tempest’, encouraging hope and strength in the face of adversity, was on the bell rung at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.
End of Walk
A new ‘Oranges and Lemons’ for the 21st Century?
“Oranges and Lemons” say the Bells of St Clements
“You rascal debt forger” say the Bells of the Orgar
“When will you pay me” say the Bells of Old Bailey
“ When I am rich” say the Bells of Fleetditch
“When will that be” say the Bells of Zachary
“I do not know” says the Great Bell of Bow
“The bells toll for all” say the chimes of Old Paul
The ending of the walk in the vicinity of St Paul’s offers a chance for photographs. Maybe one featuring the cathedral sculpture ‘Resurgam’ on the south facade echoes with the walk theme of ‘Recovery & Renewal’.
The City Information Centre, St Paul’s Churchyard, London EC4M 8BX and the Cathedral are worth visiting for further information on events and activities. Scheduled ringings are listed in the Friends of City Churches bulletins.
Keep up to date with the latest news ...