Sometimes, the wind carries in through my windows the faint sound of bells from a Tudor church that stands right by the river. On a Sunday morning, it is a joyous pealing. In the evening, the sound is more measured, more akin to the Anglican chant of the evensong it precedes.
A few months ago, I heard about a couple, newly relocated to an English village, who had begun a campaign to hush the church bells, because they stopped the couple from sleeping at night. I was saddened. In time, you get used to sleeping through any amount of noise, be it road traffic, airplanes, the neighbours’ television, and even gunshots. How could this couple not grow accustomed to sleeping to the bells? After all, just how loud could village church bells be?
For as long as I can remember, I have loved the sound of church bells. There is something reassuring in the regularity of their chimes, something cosy in the way they watch over the passing of time, gently punctuating it, like a metronome.
My grandmother used to take me to hear the joyful ding-a-ling of Russian Orthodox bells, and the jingle of the soprano solo bell, teasing the others to respond. On Sunday mornings, we sometimes followed its their peremptory call to the colourful Russian Cathedral off the Avenue Tzarevitch, in Nice. A call associated in my memory with air heavy with incense and the basso profundo of the stern Batyushka priest.
I remember a not dissimilar pealing at midnight on Easter Saturday in Athens, when I was nine years old. Competing with the crack of fireworks, it resounded among a congregation spilled out into the church yard, all exchanging Easter blessings. Children, red-dyed hard-boiled eggs in hand, tapped them together. If your egg remained unscathed but managed to crack the other child’s egg shell, then you won.
I am partial to English church bells. I love the slightly disorganised clanging, as though the bells were tripping over one-another in their eagerness to be heard, like a group of neighbours competing to be the first to impart a piece of juicy gossip or good news. When I was at university, my College was a few paces along from Durham Cathedral. I remember with great fondness the merry bell-ringing on a Sunday afternoon, bouncing off the stone cobbles of the Bailey, running downhill past Windy Gap, to the River Wear, and echoing as far as Prebends Bridge, almost in answer to Sir Walter Scott’s poem engraved on the parapet. When I sat up all night writing last-minute essays, the quarter-hourly chimes kept me company, perhaps with a tone of reproach for my having left the essay so late. In the early evening, a quick, regular dong called to choral evensong. It gave me just enough time to grab my gown, wrap its black folds over my jeans, and sprint through the Norman arches.
The solemn, baritone bell of San Marco roused me from my sleep at every hour on my first night in Venice. A solemn toll, proclaiming the indisputable supremacy of La Serenissima, reminding you that you are but a mere traveller, ascertaining that you feel the full privilege of being in presence of such magnificence. I listened and mentally bowed to the bell, my senior by a few centuries. On my second night, the same bell drowned out the swearing in veneziano of the gondoliers drifting below my window, and lulled me to sleep. Now that I honoured the status of the City of Venus, San Marco’s bells would watch over my slumber.