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
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
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
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
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.