Our Bells

Imagine travelling along the Roman road, either from Bristol or from Bath, and nearing the ancient village of Bitton. It lies in the valley below the hillside track where King Charles II ran for his life after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Jane Seymour, wife of King Henry VIII, once lived in the big house within a stone’s throw of the 11c church whose bells you hear.

John Betjeman and Bitton’s bells John Betjeman knew St Mary’s. A lover of the sound of church bells, it was only natural that he should write a poem about them. It is entitled Bristol and we quote it below. If you would like to come and see the church, hear the bells rung, you will be welcomed on practice nights, Mondays from 7.45 till 9.00. Special occasions apart, ringing days are 1st, 3rd and 5th Sundays of the month.

Green upon the flooded Avon shone the after-storm-wet-sky Quick the struggling withy branches let the leaves of autumn fly And a star shone over Bristol, wonderfully far and high.

Ringers in an oil-lit belfry – Bitton? Kelston? who shall say? -Smoothly practicing a plain course, cavemed out the dying day As their melancholy music flooded up and ebbed away,

Then all Somerset was around me and I saw the clippers ride, High above the moonlit houses, triple-masted on the tide, By the tall embattled church-towers of Bristol waterside.

And an undersong to branches dripping into pools and wells Out of multitudes of elm trees over leagues of hill and dells Was the mathematic pattern of a plain course on the bells.

John Betjeman

Bells are long-lived. Three of the bells were being made in the year 1633. Fascinating, when you reflect that it was the year that Galileo was on trial for saying the earth moved round the sun and when Mrs Pepys gave birth to Samuel!

From church to church, bells can sound very different. The eight bells of St Mary’s, in the key of E, are noted for their tuneful and pleasant tone. The Tenor weighs 14cwt (711kg).

In case you are unfamiliar with church bells: each bell hangs with its clapper hanging loose. In this position it is said to be ‘Down’. Before the bells can be rung, ringers separately, from down below in the ringing chamber, have to pull on their rope and make the bell swing gradually higher and higher until it is pointing upwards, where it rests. When all the bells have been ‘rung up’ like this, the ringers are ready to begin.

Until 1936 the St Mary’s ring was of six bells and they were hung on wooden frames. The six bells were restored and rehung; two new treble bells were added in memory of Blanche Ellen Taylor, the wife of Frank Henning William Taylor, MA, who was vicar of Bitton at that time.

The bells were rehung on metal frames and ball-bearing mountings and the original six were brought in tune with the two new ones. They were dedicated on 5th December, 1936.

In this chart it will be noticed that the overall weight of the present back bells was reduced quite considerably, particularly the tenor, which was reduced by 3.5 cwt. The bells were made smaller by a method known as ‘chip tuning’; this is the skilful removal of large chips of metal from the outer rim of the bell until its note and tone are correct. It is also believed that some form of ‘skimming’ of the bells was done.