Jeremy Quin: Horsham Festival of Bells

On 4th November 1942 church bells rang out across England.  The Battle of Alamein marked for Churchill “not perhaps the beginning of the end but maybe the end of the beginning.”  He ordered a celebration and bells that had been silent – awaiting their role of warning the country of invasion – rang out. 

That joyous sound marked an ancient tradition of using bells to celebrate, to warn and to inform.  In days long preceeding the telephone let alone twitter they fulfilled a valuable role.  Sussex legends are suffused in stories of bells:  nightime travellers rescued by the sound of distant bells and of a bell that slipped for ever off the road and into marshland near Rudgwick. 

As recently as the 1920s my grandfather, as a child, was paid to ring the “death knell” – warning of a death in parish.   A happier story comes from the Midlands where to this day the provisions of a will are annually honoured and a death knell bursts mid flow into a wedding peel – the gentlemen responsible was being carried to his funeral, the coffin was dropped at the lychgate and the jolt revived him!  As a “thanks-offering” ever since the bells have annually rung sadness into celebration.

English bell ringing is unique.  For many whether or not they are personally “summoned by bells” their sound echoing over town and village rooftops is quintessentially English.  A tradition to be honoured and sustained.  I was therefore delighted on Saturday to be taught the ropes (literally) in the Mini-Bell Tower in Carfax, hear about rope making and climb to the ringing loft of the St Mary’s to see the experts in action.  It was a great way to celebrate centuries of local church bell ringing. 

Occasionally one reads of new arrivals into a village or cathedral close reaching for lawyers on hearing their first peal of bells.  Happily since a High Court judgement in 2012 they tend to get short shrift and I am glad of it.  Hopefully the bells of Horsham and the villages will be still be ringing out in another 250 years.