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Down my way: The Sherborne Abbey bells

Steve Chilcott recalls the importance of punctuality as a Sherborne schoolboy

Slaves to the rhythm

Slaves to the rhythm

Moving, mid-sixties, from a modest, homely prep school in Surrey to Sherborne School was a huge shock to the system. Unlike the old self-contained and familiar campus, Sherborne School spread itself out in all directions, requiring an instant grasp of local town geography (and a reliable bicycle).
No longer anchored for the duration within a form classroom, one had to gather books together and decamp somewhere else every fifty minutes, on command of the Abbey clock, and for a brief once-an-hour interlude the entire school disgorged into the ‘courts’, scurried around frantically like so many worker ants only to disappear in a flash, as the clock struck. Everything ran to bells. Bells to get up, bells to go to bed, bells for this, bells for that….
In my house, ‘the Green’, there was a dedicated rota and the person ‘doing bells’ not only had to ring them, but also to give prior warning of the coming peal by patrolling the corridors first shouting ‘F – I – I – I – V – E …..M – O – O – O -R – E!’ in two distinctive, stentorian notes a precise musical third apart.
The ultimate authority in terms of local time-keeping, though, was that Abbey clock. It governed our every waking move for close on five years; most of this was spent anxiously trying not to be late. Life’s timetable, before or since, has never been quite so precise or well-ordered.
Although reassuringly melodious, that clock was an unforgiving taskmaster, sounding out four times an hour; on the hour, the half hour and on the quarters, to and past, each distinguished by its own note combination. Ding-dang-deng-dong! Dong-deng-ding-dang! – half that for the quarter-past, half again on top for the quarter-to, until – on the hour – it boomed out the entire four movement symphony, then marked the specific o’clock, B♭ crash by commandingly authoritative B♭ crash.
My perennial problem was to dither around too long after breakfast, leave the Green too late, scamper down Hospital Hill in a flurry of books and papers, only to find that the Abbey clock was already tolling and a burly school prefect awaited in a brightly-coloured waistcoat – usually intimidatingly dark-green or maroon – at the top of the chapel steps, ready to mete out retribution. I spent many a morning chapel service skulking in the cloister toilet, hoping that my pew-partners had had the presence of mind to bunch up and hide the tell-tale gap left by my absence.
The bells of Sherborne Abbey weigh around 7¾ tons in total and claim to be the heaviest ring of eight bells anywhere in the world, the big one being that  B♭ tenor, weighing in at 46 cwt.
Cardinal Wolsey reputedly took this from Tournai by way of a souvenir – presumably while the Belgians weren’t paying attention – brought it back to the West Country and gave it to Sherborne, having failed first to find anywhere suitable to hang it at his Hampton Court residence.
The clock itself which first tolled at midday on March 14 1874, originally sported only two faces, presumably to keep tardy townsfolk to the east and the south in order, until the school governors kicked up and insisted on a north face (directed at the ‘courts’) which they added for a modest 40 quid. Only the vicarage, immediately to the west, is left to its own celestial time-keeping.
In those days the Abbey walls were festooned with stout ivy and a favourite prank was to shin up to the clock and etch your name on the gilt hands or, for the more inventively disruptive (probably from that hotbed of sedition, Westcott House), to weight the mechanism so that it ran slow or even, under cover of darkness, to wind it back an hour, which must have caused mayhem to both town and gown, before the wheeze was finally rumbled. Unsurprisingly, the ivy was hacked down.
In 1938 the Wolsey Bell was taken to London for repairs and retuning at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. When it returned, it was dragged up Digby Road from the station on huge rollers by a gaggle of stoutly-muscled rugby forwards; on that same day, a set of bells from Tournai was on its way to Ypres, to replace those blasted by the Kaiser’s bombardments during World War 1. ◗

❱ The author would like to thank Canon Eric Woods and Richard Churchill for allowing (and escorting) him up into the bell chamber and out onto the roof of the Abbey tower.

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