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.
Your post brought back such wonderful memories of my childhood. On Monday nights the local church had their rehearsal nights. No matter the weather, my mom would open my window so I could fall asleep to the bells because I loved them so much. I looked forward to Sundays for just the same reason. Years later, I was driving in the country, listening to the radio and I was startled to hear church bells, MY church bells. I was in another province, thousands of miles from my hometown. It turned out the bells were on the radio. I kept telling my husband they were MY bells. When the commentator was finishing up the piece, he did identify the bells. And I was right. It was a beautiful sound.
My son lives in a very busy, loud part of the city and he says he misses the noise when he comes home to our place. Like me, he prefers to sleep with the window open so I fall asleep to the quiet and he loves the sounds of city life.
What a wonderful tale of bells. Thank you for sharing it.
I live a mile and half away from a small town in North Dakota and on still nights I can hear the bells from our church in town. The sound is soft and ethereal as it floats through the quiet and I often wish I could always hear it. After years of living in cities with the gunshots, fire engine sirens, and traffic noise, then more years of living in a small town in Montana where the trains flew through every hour (at least) at 85 m.p.h., whistles blowing, it’s lovely to live where it is so quiet that I can hear the power lines humming and coyotes howling in the distance.
Except for the humming of power lines (the constant whirr of the electrics in my flat is giving me tinnitus and disturbing my sleep), your place in North Dakota sounds idyllic. Coyotes howling? How wonderful! I used to live in Cambridge (England) where I used to lie in bed, listening to owls having a conference. Now, I live in London, where you can’t seem to escape the horrid noise of planes and helicopters. Thank you for your comments.
Though I would never have thought I could get used to the sound of bells in a town, my undergraduate university was in a small town and the school bell tower sounded on the 1/4 hour or 1/2 hour, I can”t remember which. I did in fact get used to it, though now I’m not sure again about how I would feel. At the time it blended in the back of my sensory mind with the details of smoky autumn leaves, winter snowfall when everything else was so silent, springs when it burst forth with the burgeoning leaves and flowers, and in the years when I stayed at university during summer, lush summer underbrush underfoot when I jogged by the trails and paths. You could hear it for quite some distance. Now, I’m living in another small town, but it’s near a big city in a building surrounded with other people, and it’s very noisy. I doubt that even a bell tower right next door could be heard without opening all the windows and being on the same side of the building. Things change, I guess.
Thank you for sharing that.
What a wonderful post, Katherine.
The Bavarian village I grew up in prides itself of four bell towers – two belonging to the largest church. Very recently my son, his partner and I stayed in the village for one week, close to the latter towers. The quarterly and full hour rings, from 7am to midnight, marked our days there. Sunday we woke to a festive symphony of chimes swinging over the rooftops. My dad had moved to a smaller home 50 miles away. We were there to sort what he had to leave behind.
My dormant time-track of sounds came up fresh as dew. The bells opened rich layers of childhood experiences. I asked my dad on the phone today if he missed the bells – he didn’t at first understand what I meant, and then laughed. ‘I didn’t hear them any more,’ he said.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I love your description of the Bavarian bells. Interesting that your father got so used to the bells, he did not hear them anymore. I wish I could equally stop noticing the planes that roar over my head from early morning, tearing through the air every few seconds.
This reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Edgar Allen Poe. I live on a major highway full of truck traffic… would love to have some church bells within earshot! Lovely post.
Thank you! Could you tell us the title of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, please?
Oh, what a beautiful post! So eloquent — brings back to me how, in a world so inundated with noise pollution, there are pockets in a city where sound is healing, soulful — even reminiscent of possible lives past lived. It also reminds me of how sad I feel when I hear people complain about birds singing too loudly.
It is true. We adjust to these sounds, just as we adjust to the sound of a new clock in our bedroom, or a fan, or an air filter. Perhaps someone should print out this blog post, look this couple up and leave a copy of it in their mailbox, to inspire them to think differently about the situation.
Thank you! I am so glad you liked my post! Actually, I am simply horrified when I hear people complain about birds singing. Someone I once met said she was having a tree cut down in her garden because the birds in it made too much noise for her too sleep. I’m afraid I couldn’t respond. I just felt so cold, tearful and queasy, I had to walk away.
You know, a true Londoner (Cockney) used to qualify as such if s/he was born within earshot of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, in East London. Of course, with the increase of traffic noise, that area is becoming smaller and smaller.
Thank you for commenting. Lovely to hear from you again.
Another lovely evocative observation! I too love church bells but had forgotten those of St Mark’s in Venice. I remember those bells in the chill of October evenings – how crystal clear!
Thank you for reminding me of something special.
Thank you for your lovely support, Liz. I am very glad you were able to bring back a happy memory. I think once we have been bewitched by Venice, the spell can never be broken.
It saddens me to think that someone would begin a campaign to silence the local church bells. That’s kind of like moving to a town near an airport and then starting a petition to alter the flight paths. If they didn’t want to hear bells, why did they move to a place where they ring bells?
I actually no longer live in a place where I can hear church bells rung on the quarter hour, and I miss it terribly. I’ve made up for a it a bit by repairing an old family clock I inherited; it only chimes on the hour and half-hour, but in between I find comfort in the ticking.
May you always live within earshot of bells of some sort!
Well, I live beneath a flight path and, a couple of years ago, when the Icelandic volcano ash cloud grounded most British flights, it was absolute bliss for a few days. You could actually hear flies and bees, and the breeze ruffling blades of grass. People in the area seemed calmer and were commenting on how peaceful it was.
I am sorry you now live where you cannot hear church bells. I imagine your clock chimes must make your home very cosy. Thank you for your wish. May I also wish that you may, again, live within earshot of church bells.
Thank you for commenting.