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JOHN STAINER once advised a friend not to inflict the sound of Westminster on his parish. Big Ben has been heard for 150 years. First the chimes were copied for Newcastle Cathedral and Queen Victoria’s many Jubilee clocks in town centres. They became hackneyed when heard from many mantelpieces even before the invention of broadcasting.
The sound has been familiar in Cambridge for more than 200 years, however; for the Westminster chimes are really those of Great St Mary, composed in 1793 by the Evangelical Dr Joseph Jowett.
Hugh Rock has written a slim but packed book with useful facts and illustrations. Like all the Shire books, it is authoritative as well as beautifully designed and reasonably priced.
It is interesting to find that Stainer approved the Oxford chime that is rung from the Carfax Tower, but originated on the Isle of Wight, where it is still heard at All Saints’, Freshwater. The author of this book finds Beverley Minster’s chimes with 107 notes both “a chime too far” and an “indulgence”.
He points out that sundials have a limitation, and clocks are the oldest machines still serving their original purpose. The earliest examples are found in the loving daily care of churches where pigeons are kept at bay.
When Big Ben started striking, there was still local time: Exeter Cathedral’s clocks ran almost 15 minutes behind Westminster time. Christ Church, Oxford, is well-known for still insisting on being five minutes behind Greenwich.
But how many people know that St Paul’s Cathedral continues to ring its 17-tonne Great Paul for four minutes at 1 p.m. to recall apprentices from lunch?
Leigh Hatts is editor of In SE1, a South Bank arts magazine.