Our Whitechapel Foundry Bell (1773)

The Season of Advent, with its themes of apocalyptic dread, makes me a bit jumpy.

First we had the sonic boom over London at 4 am on Sunday morning sounding like the Lord was arriving on clouds with glory and great power.

Then this morning, during prayers, the foundations of the building began to shake and it turned out that the fibre optic guys were laying a cable outside the church. I told them that they risked breaking through into the caverns of the crypt with their drilling and half an hour later they had packed up and moved off for fear opening up a sinkhole in the street. Advent dread appears to be catching.

Thank God, I say, for our church bell that reliably tolls the hour and predictably calls the faithful to worship. At least it did until a couple of weeks ago when it started sounding as though it had caught a cold.

Rather than the usual clarion call floating across the Common, the Angelus had begun to resemble a car with a dead battery. Maybe the bell went out on sympathy strike for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, currently under threat of being turned into a boutique hotel.

So we called Smith of Derby, the company that has been looking after our clock and our bell for a generation and a man called Tom turned up. He appeared with his bag of tools and we gave him the key to the bell tower and pointed at the ladder in the back vestry.

“Are you coming?” he asked.

“Why not?” I said.

After the first ladder I remembered why not. I don’t like heights and our ladder is more like a swing attached to a trap door than a stable means of access. I could feel the panic rising. But I continued to follow Tom, first to the clock level and then up to the belfry. He told me always to keep three points of contact with the ladder. That’s actually quite good advice.

Maybe what I needed was to experience real fear rather than confected fear because when we reached the cupola I was as calm as a dove. Together we picked out the date on the bell of 1773 and the words “Pack and Chapman, London”. This means our bell was made in Whitechapel too. It also means it’s nearly 250 years old and dates back to the original tower. Tom told me the bell is tuned to A. That’s A for anticipation and not D for dread.