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All the bells on earth shall ring

19 December 2014

With the prospect of glad bells pealing at Christmas, Pat Ashworth visited the largest bell foundry in the world


Ring out: the bells for Gorran in the tuning shop

Ring out: the bells for Gorran in the tuning shop

THERE is a distinct feeling of stepping back in time the moment you enter John Taylor & Co., the bell foundry at Loughborough - the largest in the world.

No high-tech workshops here, with ranks of computers, and men in white coats. This is industry as we think of industry: huge, dark, and noisy, with a prevalence of heavy machinery, an abundance of tools, and an evocative smell of engine oil.

What looks like an ancient cobbled floor in a covered area that used to be a yard turns out to be weathered timber blocks, intentionally softer than stone, so that when a bell is placed on it, there is no chance of its chipping.

"Bells are very brittle. You have to look after them well," Mike Semken says. He is a director of Taylor's, and - like most of the team here - a church bell-ringer himself. He is one of the team who ring Taylor's own 12 full-circle bells, one of the smallest twelves in the country, with a regular peal on Mondays for whoever wants to come and ring.

There are bells everywhere, in various states of completion, on this enormous engineering shop-floor. John Taylor & Co. continues a line of bellfounding which is unbroken since the mid-14th century, when Johannes de Stafford had a foundry a few miles away from Loughborough.

From 1784, the business was operated by members of the Taylor family. It moved to this site in 1839, and to say that little has changed would be to pay a compliment.

"A joiner from 100 years ago would recognise how we do things here," Mr Semken says. Bells are made here as they have always been, in the Taylor's way, and with the distinctly English sound that is part of this country's soundscape.


I WATCH work in progress on a big current project: to give a new, permanent home at St Goranus's, Cornwall, to the heavy Warner ring of eight bells from Chatham, in Kent, cast for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

They are being sandblasted to remove verdigris and encrusted pigeon mess, and then tuned.

A new bell-frame of cast iron and steel is being manufactured here (with room for two more bells in the future), together with all new ringing fittings, before being rehung in the big granite tower at Gorran.

They make it all here: frames - built, dipped in creosote, and left to dry; headstocks; bells; and ropes. Everything, including the bells, is bespoke from Taylor's own patterns. "We never throw anything away," Mr Semken says. "Even bells with the same diameter in a church will have bespoke fittings, because every component will be slightly different from before. Everything varies. There's no repeat business."


The tuning shop is thrilling to the outsider for the sheer beauty of the burnished bells that sit here, or are being worked on the lathe; for the glittering tubs of shavings that will be melted down in the furnace and used again; and for the sheer precision of the process.

Bell master and bell tuner work on the five principal harmonies of each bell - the hum, fundamental, tierce, quint, and nominal - but these, in turn, influence many others, and only when the correct frequency for each of these harmonies is achieved is the bell in tune with itself.

Sound builds in a good bell. Notes can be affected in different ways, according to where the bell is cut, on a machine that is the equivalent of a lathe turned on its side. We talk of minor thirds, fifths in upper octaves, and octave nominals - a reminder that we are dealing with music. We strike a completed bell: "That will do for another 300 years," Mr Semken says, with satisfaction.


WHAT makes the English sound, I want to know. "The English profile is very soft and rounded, where normal Continental bells are quite square and flat. Taylor's bells are all about depth of sound - a full, warm sound, not just a sharp hum that pierces, but has no depth of character," he says.

"Just tap it. Try the big one." I do. It is beautiful, pure, awesome. It is one of the ones going to Gorran, and it is a mere youngster compared with some of the bells that they make or restore here. Only when a bell gets to 700 or 800 years old do they really consider it to be old. Sometimes, they take bells out from the late 1700s which have been going without attention ever since they were put in.

Bell metal is traditionally said to be 77 per cent copper, and 23 per cent tin; now, varying the alloy a little, the ratio is closer to 80:20. It is demonstrated by tapping the tuning fork and holding it on the bell. By counting the number of beats per second, you can tell what frequency is being sought.

There are five tuning forks for every bell, and it is the first time I have encountered an entire room full of forks, shelf upon shelf of them, like a great library.

I am here on a Thursday, casting day, when the furnace is ready and roaring. Every bell has its own mould, a bell core constructed from brick and loam forming the inside shape, and inscriptions pressed into it while the clay is still wet.

Once dried in an industrial oven, the mould will be buried in a freshly dug pit for a week before casting.Taylor's is the only bell foundry still to use this traditional method, which allows for slower cooling and a better molecular structure, and famously "allows our bells to sing".

It is dark and cavernous, almost Dickensian, in the foundry itself, except for the bright orange glare, and roaring of the small furnace appropriate to today's small casting.

There is something timeless and strangely ennobling about two men carrying 60 kilos of molten metal, and pouring it gently into the mould - a huge physical effort, after which they must immediately sit down, rest, and drink.


THEY cast handbells here, too: "A whole world of its own." Mr Semken talks with pleasure of the burnished, gleaming bells, chiselled by hand rather than on a lathe, and awaiting their new leather fittings. We take a diversion outside to the carillon tower, which, when time and money allows, the company hopes to make into the full-blown 23 bells that will make it a true carillon rather than a chime.

It is next to a big housing development, and the people who live here only complain when it does not play tunes every lunchtime, and - at the end of every day - "Now the day is over".

The paper archive at Taylor's is extraordinary. Here, meticulously kept, are records and drawings for every job that has ever gone out: a file on the bells of every town and village in the country. Cash books, day books, letters' books, correspondence on tissue-thin paper, and even records of every source of metal for every bell ever cast here - where the metal came from, when it was broken up, what bells it went into.

We pick one at random, Tewkesbury old bells, where the alloy has been adjusted with a bit of extra copper; the weight has been recorded in hundredweights, quarters, and pounds; a note has been made of what time the furnace was lit, and what time it was tapped.


There are generations of work to be done here, and the archivists George Dawson and Chris Pickford are engaged on the momentous task of digitising some of the very old material, and cataloguing the more modern correspondence, too, which is added to every day.

There are the copybooks of generations of the Taylor family, whose official involvement with the company, now an independent trust, ceased in 2003.

There have been rough periods: an unsatisfactory merger in 2006, and the company going into administration before the setting up of the new trust in 2009. Some of the really old buildings on this sprawling complex are on English Heritage's "At Risk" register, and urgent work is needed on the roof. "It's been tough, until the second half of last year. Things have just started to get more relaxed," Mr Semken says, acknowledging that "you're never going to get rich in this business, working for churches and for a lot of grant bodies. But we do all right."

Churches who use their bells care about their bells. There is a waiting list of nine months for new projects, and work is on the books, or in progress, for scores of churches the length and breadth of the country.

And not just at home or just for churches, either: bells for a Hindu temple at Colombo, in Sri Lanka; and for an Episcopal church in Dallas, Texas. There is even a bar bell for the Tap and Clapper pub, in Loughborough.

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