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A bell’s tone is part of its heritage, says chancellor

19 September 2014

Sound of the 18th century: St Michael's, Michaelchurch Escley

Sound of the 18th century: St Michael's, Michaelchurch Escley

BECAUSE it is irreversible, the tuning of a complete old ring of bells is a serious matter, and should not merely be accepted "on the nod", Deputy Chancellor Mark Ockleton has said in the Consistory Court of Hereford.

He made the comment when excluding the tuning of the bells from a faculty issued for the carrying out of other work at St Michael's, in the village of Michaelchurch Escley.

The bells are from the Rudhall foundry, in Gloucester, and were installed in 1732. They appeared to be untouched, except for the loss of the canons on the third, and a crack in the tenor.

The former made no difference to the sound of the bells, and the latter was to be repaired by welding, which would not materially alter the original sound. If the bells were then restored for ringing, they would make the same sound as when they were installed. That was "something to be valued and to be proud of", the Deputy Chancellor said.

The diocesan advisory committee said that it recommended tuning "to improve the musical relationship" of the bells, as indicated by the bell-founder, and the diocesan bells adviser said that he had no objection.

The Deputy Chancellor said that he found it "a little troubling" that the DAC proceeded simply on the basis that "if an old thing can be 'improved' by being modernised, it should be."

Tuning bells was irreversible, and, in the case of a complete ring by a single founder as yet untuned, the tuning destroyed an artefact: namely, the original sound of the bells, the Deputy Chancellor said.

There were not many sounds preserved from before the days of sound recordings, and those that survived were "a valuable part of our heritage".

Tuning was also a matter of taste and fashion, and the present conventions of the tuning of individual bells derived from work carried out in the period after about 1890.

There was no right or wrong, and when the bell-founder said that the tuning was "distinctly old-style", that was "not necessarily a criticism", the Deputy Chancellor said.

He would not rule out tuning if a case were made out, he said, particularly if it were shown that the bells sounded so bad that the mission of the church was affected (including a disinclination, if there was one, among ringers to ring them), or a feeling that they let the church down in some way. But there was no suggestion of that in the present case.

All that was being said was that the bell-founder could modernise the sound, although it was not said that there was anything horrible about the historic sound that the bells currently had. Indeed, it was not apparent, the Deputy Chancellor said, whether the parish even realised that it had an early-18th-century sound that it proposed to destroy.

The mere fact that the bells were not listed for preservation was not a reason for not preserving their sound, where the work was not shown to be necessary.

Where a good case was made, there might need to be a balance struck between the asserted needs of the present, and the desirability of preserving the past. But, where no case was made out at all, there could be no reason to destroy the heritage, the Deputy Chancellor ruled.

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