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The Bells of St Mary’s : Preview

by on 17 February 2022

Musically Striking

The Bells of St Mary’s : Preview

The Thames Singers at Hampton Parish Church, Hampton 26th February  

Preview by Thomas Forsythe with Jonathan Williams

Music critic Thomas Forsythe discusses the Bells of Hampton Church and the forthcoming A Concert for the Bells with St Mary’s Ringing Master, Jonathan Williams

TF:     Campanology is a great word for a pub quiz, but it must be exciting to be part of the skilled ringing band making these giants of the musical world sing out so joyously.  

JW:     St Mary’s eight bells are a key part of our local heritage and has been ringing for nearly two centuries, so yes, it is an exhilarating experience.  They were cast together as a set as the present church was being completely re-built in 1831. Our octet has been a call to worship ever since for Sunday services, for weddings and for special occasions … royal jubilees for example.

TF:     Though I hear that you are planning a rehanging of the bells, an extensive piece of work.  So will they be back in place to ring for the Queen’s Jubilee?

JW:     It is almost certain we will not be able to start the work until well after June, so you will hear the existing bell sounds at the Jubilee.   There is much planning and preparatory work to be done.  The bearings, wheels, ropes and pulleys degrade over time and need to be replaced. The bells will be removed from the tower, taken to a bell foundry for restoration and for tuning, which involves the use of specialist lathes.  The headstocks, the oak “yokes” from which the bells are supported, will also need to be checked before the bells are returned and reinstated in the tower.  Moreover, this will cost a great deal of money, which we will need time to raise.  

TF:     It is clearly not something that is undertaken lightly (and I’m sure the bells are far from light), or I imagine very often.

JW:     We know that the bells were last re-hung early in 1951, so the proposed work will probably be the third time in their history that this level of maintenance has been carried out.  It is quite an undertaking, as the bells need to be lowered from the top of the tower.  The total weight of the eight bells is nearly three tonnes and the biggest, the F# tenor, weighs over twelve and a half hundredweight (almost two-thirds of a tonne).  The tenor is also used by the church tower clock to sound the hours.

TF:     A very familiar sound then.  And the pealing of St Mary’s bells is of course one of the treasures of Hampton, whose music is known far and wide.  As an example, I even found a twenty-year old recording that a professional sound effects library regularly uses (and sells!).  

JW:     We find our bells appearing on all sorts of recordings.  It is the bells of St Mary’s that features on Pink Floyd’s High Hopes album.

TF:     Of course, Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour owns The Astoria, the historic houseboat that has its own recording studio, which is moored on the Thames at Hampton almost opposite St Mary’s church.

JW:     Many thousands of people worldwide may have heard our bells without realising what they were.

TF:     Well-deserved fame nevertheless.  But may I ask which foundry will be doing the work on the bells?

JW:     Well, talking of fame, our bells were made in the world famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry that made Big Ben, and The Liberty Bell in America, but sadly it had to give up its factory in East London that had been there since 1420.  However, its successor company will be one of the specialist companies tendering for the work.

TF:     Could you tell us what you estimate the cost to be?

JW:     We are budgeting for a total cost of £80,000.  However, we had a very generous grant from a dedicated charity, the Middlesex County Association and London Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers, confirmed just prior to Covid putting everything on hold.  That grant remains open, and is for £15,000, for which we are enormously grateful.

TF:     What a wonderful “kick-start” for your fundraising.   Nevertheless, that still leaves a considerable sum of money yet to raise.

JW:     Yes, and to this end the appeal to keep the bells of St Mary’s ringing will be formally launched on Saturday 26th February with a chamber concert of solo and choral items at St Mary’s church.

TF:     How do we get tickets? 

JW:     The concert will be free to attend, so just come along to St Mary’s Church, Thames Street, Hampton (TW12 2EB) on Saturday 26th February.  Doors will be open from 5:30pm and the concert starts at 6pm.  Naturally we would like our audience to make a donation, be it modest or magnificent. 

TF:     Also I understand that you are looking for sponsors.

JW:     Very much so.  Each of the eight rope wheels can be sponsored for £500 or a rope pulley for £250.  Rehanging one of the eight bells would cost £2,000, and an individual or as a group might like to consider sponsorship of a bell as perhaps a memorial to a loved one or as a lasting endowment to the history of Hampton.   

TF:     Could you whet our appetites for the concert itself?

JW:     I hope so.  We will be performing a mixture of solo songs and choral items.  The programme will comprise German and English music from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century.  The first half will present well-known composers such as Handel, Schumann, and Brahms and include less famous names such as Josef Rheinberger, a nineteenth Century composer from Liechtenstein.  After the interval, we start with the WWI war-poet turned composer Ivor Gurney, and then move through the twentieth Century with Ireland, Quilter, Roe, and Jones (a chance to sing in Welsh).  The late twentieth Century brings us to the USA and Morten Lauridsen.  Finally we will hear Bob Chilcott, a contemporary composer.  It sounds ambitious, but they are all fairly short pieces.

TF:     So a nicely balanced mixture of sacred and secular songs.  Who will be your performers?

JW:     As tenor soloists, I will be joined by Robert Carlin and the choir will be The Thames Singers.  Philip Kaye will be our piano accompanist.

TF:     It promises to be a very varied and interesting programme with some great signing talent.   I look forward to being at the concert on 26th February.  Thank you, Jonathan for telling us all about your exciting project, which brings together history, music, culture, song and tradition, and of course a fantastic music source that rarely features in arts reviews, church bell-ringing.

Thomas Forsythe, February 2022

Photography by Jonathan Williams

More details at St Mary’s Hampton – A Concert for the Bells (hampton-church.org.uk)

From → Architecture, Music

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