Cathedral bells gone to meet their maker
The 13 bells of ChristChurch Cathedral sit in the middle of the floor of John Taylor & Co The Bellfoundry in the English Midlands town of Loughborough, the very place they were cast in 1978.
After hanging in the cathedral tower for nearly 33 years, they fell in the 2011, February 22, earthquake and were buried in the debris of the destroyed tower.
They were retrieved six months later, then, after being stored at Ferrymead Historic Park, they were loaded into containers in July and sent back across the world.
The bells arrived at Taylors last month, and now sit on the old Victorian foundry's floor, awaiting examination to determine the nature of repairs. Lined up in three neat rows, weighing nearly six tonnes, they seem complete specimens. But, on inspection, they have a scratched and dusty complexion, and badly chipped lips.
The world's largest bell foundry, and one of just two in Britain, Taylors has a fine tradition dating back to 1786. In 1881, they cast the original bells for the ChristChurch Cathedral, and just months later were at work on what is still the largest bell in Britain, Great Paul, the 16-tonne giant for St Paul's Cathedral. They replaced the Christchurch bells in 1978, using bronze melted from the old bells of Coventry's Holy Trinity Church.
Taylors director Simon Adams is amazed the bells remain intact.
Bronze bells are brittle, with weird centres of gravity, and he says falling from the height of the tower ought to have shattered them like glass. It's most likely that three levels of flooring helped break their 30-metre fall.
As if giving voice to the miracle of survival, a beam of silver light passes through a high window and lands like a spotlight on the tenor bell, illuminating the inscription that recognises early Canterbury settler Robert Heaton Rhodes as the donor of the original bells in 1881:
"Through all the ROADS of life, the best
We'll strive to be your guide;
And let our notes do your behest
By tolling far and wide.
We've crossed the seas to this fair land
To do GOD all the honour,
From clime to clime we'll ring our chime,
And tell of RHODES the donor."
Inscribed on the other bells are the names of prominent people in the cathedral's history, including Archbishop Julius, Dean Michael Underhill, James Collins - instrumental in raising the $500,000 for the Cathedral Restoration Appeal in the late 1970s - and donors of the 1978 bells.
Whether the bells can reproduce the tones for which they were manufactured is another matter. Adams, an experienced bell ringer, has not yet tested the sound for himself, and now has some of them hoisted off the ground so he can hit them with a hammer.
From an examination by their own expert, who visited Christchurch in 2011, he knows at least four are cracked, and a fifth "absolutely dead", responding to the hammer with only a clunk. The sixth has a "fuzzy resonance", the result of a micro-crack.
The huge 1.25-tonne tenor bell gives a deep, penetrating note in response to the hammer. "The tenor sounds glorious and fully in good tone," Adams says.
The tuning department will test the bells, but that is at least promising.
Tuning machinist Girdhar Vadukar is also on hand, listening to the tone with admiration and love, a smile on his face, clearly aware of the ordeal the bell has been through.
Since the quake the bells have acquired a unique status. Bells don't fall from towers, let alone survive, and it's also unusual to ever see the return of a bell, since when they leave the foundry they are expected to last 100 years. "I never expected to see them again," says foreman Roger Johns, who as a young foundryman in 1978 worked on casting the bells.
The amount of work required, and the cost, is still to be determined. But with all bells intact, there will certainly be no need to replace them - just as well, since a 12-bell peal would cost half a million dollars. Taylors will analyse tone and tuning by consulting their original 1978 records, and apply dye penetrant to detect any cracks. Further X-rays may be needed, and bronze welding to repair the cracks. Both are costly.
To pay for it, Christchurch Cathedral's bell ringers have established a fund. Ringing master Peter Whitehead led the charge for restoration, opposing melting them down and recasting. "The miracle of survival was so great I'd love to see them back in the tower."
At first donations came in spontaneously, but Whitehead was aware that as time passed the fundraising opportunity would too. The cathedral itself, which faces its own fundraising and insurance issues, was in no position to help, so the bell ringers took over.
Their transportation back to their birthplace would have involved considerable expense had not almost all companies involved donated their services. It was only after the bells had arrived at the port of Felixstowe that around $6000 was charged, firstly by Customs, and then for the cartage of the bells to Loughborough.
About $20,000 in donations have have come from Britain, where the bell-ringing community is 40,000 strong. The first Sunday after the bells arrived, Taylors held an open day and raised nearly $1000 in three hours - the upturned fifth bell serving as a collection plate.
The fund stands at around $25,000, but the cost of new fittings for just one bell alone are about $10,000. Meanwhile, the 15 Christchurch bell ringers dream of the day when their globe-trotting bells will sound again in the city.
Sunday Star Times