When Paul Wiegmann visited Oxford early last year, he stayed in the cushy accommodations of the very weathly St. John’s college. Despite the luxury, he was seriously perturbed by the Bells of St. Johns.
“At 1 am they rang and woke me up. Then at 2am they rang twice and woke me up. Then at 3am they rang three times and woke me up…” ... and so forth.
My house (or “terraced”, as it is called) is very close to St. Barnabus Church. There are also hourly chimes at that church all night long, but I’m just far enough away that they don’t disturb me while I am sleeping (a block away is about enough, being that I’m slowly going deaf).
Bells at Oxford are just a fact of life you get used to. In addition to hourly chimes from everywhere, you frequently hear a bell cacophony that continues on and on for minutes, or even for the better part of an hour sometimes. You rarely know where these things are coming from, or why they are ringing in the first place. Many of the 40-something-odd colleges and halls have bell towers, as do many of the dozens of churches scattered around Oxford.
Perhaps the most impressive, if not the loudest, set of bells is at St Giles church, which is conveniently squeezed between the Theoretical Physics department and Somerville College, and can be heard very clearly from both. The bells in this church have an impressive history. The tenor F# bell dates all the way back to 1632 and bears the inscription
FEARE GOD HONAR THE KING 1632
“Honar”-ing the king probably meant “do what the king tells you if you want keep your head”. “Feare”-ing God probably also meant, “do what the church tells you if you want to keep your head”. Perhaps “Learn to spell” would have been a good addition to the inscription as well.
Despite the ruckus caused by the frequently ringing of these bells, I confess to having a soft spot for bell-ringing. Back in high-school in Rochester New York, I was heavily recruited by several churches to be part of their bell-choirs. I was considered a choice recruit because I could read music well and, as an agnostic jew, I was always available on Sunday mornings. Admittedly, this was handbell ringing (See here or here), not real quasimodo-style bell ringing, but I’m not sure that any church in Rochester New York even has a proper bell-tower for that. The handbells were popularized as practice tools for their larger counterparts, but have now taken on a life of their own – particularly in sacred music, and in places where they don’t have real bell towers. At any rate, some of these bell-choirs were really fun to play in and they had talented musicians as their leaders. The down side was that I occasionally ended up having to sit through church services --- I guess the corresponding benefit of this was that I finally learned a bit about what goes on in churches (although it also more or less cemented my opinion that I was not really missing much as a non-church-goer). At any rate, I think I may have been the only agnostic Jew in high school who could quote new testament scripture.