Thursday, 3 November 2011

By the Sound of the Bell

Since my childhood, I've always loved the sound of church bells, and in spite of me not being a religious person anymore, I still like it, and maybe writing this down helps me to understand better why that is so.
My home town has somewhere around 89.000 inhabitants, and in the small area that I consider my neighbourhood, there are two churches close enough for me to hear their bells. There are three more in town centre, a bit further away from my house, but still within hearing distance when the wind is right. And while you'll hardly ever see me inside any of those buildings, I like the fact that they are there and add to the orderly structure of my everyday life which is so important to me. I need the tidy, stable outer frame to keep the rather chaotic, whirling and colourful wilderness of my mind within acceptable borders, I guess, and the bells contribute to that.

This has been so particularly since I have started working from home earlier this year, as explained in this post (and mentioned in some others; if you want to know more, simply put "working from home" in the search bar on my blog).

With the exception of the days when I have to get up really early to catch a train or plane, I do not set my alarm clock anymore; instead, I let the church bells wake me.
This is, I think, common in most towns nowadays, at least in Germany: The bells chime only from 6.00 or 7.00 in the morning until 11.00 pm or midnight, but not during the night. In my town, they start at 7.00 - just right for me to get up and begin the working day with enough time to have a mug of coffee, read the blogs I am following, sort through the first batch of emails for the day, have a shower, get dressed and eat my muesli.

The bells announce every quarter of the hour with one, two, three and four chimes. After the fourth chime, the full hour is struck. And after the seven, noon and six p.m. chimes, there is a pause of maybe half a minute or less, and then a long, resounding chime announces that it is now time to begin the working day, or have your lunch break, or end the working day. It is those long chimes I particularly like; I don't know how better to describe them than as a soft, dark red velvety carpet of sound covering, at least for a little while, the neighbourhood, muffling all the noise our busy daily lives create.

Much to my dismay, at the end of summer I suddenly noticed the long morning chime was gone. The noon one is still "on", and I am ashamed to say that I am not sure about the 6.00 pm one, but the morning one is definitely gone. Now I am wondering whether that is a seasonal thing, and hope it will be back in the spring. Maybe the authorities regulating (like ALL things in Germany are regulated, one way or other!) church bells have determined that in this town, people should not be "disturbed" by the long morning chime during the winter, when it is bad enough having to get up while it is still dark outside? I really don't know, and wonder who I could ask to find out.

Anyway, the bells at 7.00 in the morning start me off a lot less apruptly than any alarm clock could do, in a gentle manner as if saying "Look, the day is starting, how about you?". Then, while I am at work, during the afternoon I usually allow myself a little coffee break. When the weather is fine, I will sit on my window sill (there are several pictures of that on my blog) and enjoy a few sunrays. This coffee break is always measured by the quarter hour bells of the church closest to my home, not by some boss telling me to get back to work now.
And in the evening, sometimes at 5.00, more often at 6.00, along with the bell I greet the beginning of leisure time, often leaving the house going to the gym or (only in summer) for a run to the sound of the bell.
When on weekends I occasionally lay down for a little nap, these naps are also measured by the sound of the bell.

I like it that way, and hopefully, will be able to enjoy this peaceful pacemaker of my days and nights for many years to come.


  1. I like the sound of bells too. I specially love to hear ringing the changes. These are done with church bells - not sure if people abroad ring the changes. It makes me feel all is right with the world. In cities in the Arab world you are awoken by the muzzeins. It doesn't have the same nostalgic associations for me that church bells do and there are often several conflicting ones in slightly different keys :( but it all adds to the atmosphere of the place.

  2. I, too, love church bells. Not that I've lived near a church with bells for a long time. My wife (and, for a short time, I) were bell-ringers on The Wirral. It's amazing how many people used to complain about the noise of the bells (and, no, not because the bell-ringers were not good at it!).

    I think most countries either toll a bell or have a carillon playing tunes rather than ringing the changes as in the UK.

  3. I love the sound of church bells, too. It has a timeless quality. I did try bellringing for a while, but it's a lot harder than it looks, hurts like hell if you forget to let go of the rope, and I wasn't very good. Sigh.

  4. I love the bells.

  5. Librarian,
    "Colourful wilderness of my mind"... you certainly know how to turn a phrase! I love this post of you enjoying the bells and how it adds structure to your life.
    One of the things that Richard misses about England is the sound of church bells. We have to go to the Monastery to hear them and we are lucky to that we have them there. Not too many American churches have them like in Europe...

  6. Jenny, I don't know what "ringing the changes" means.

    GB, probably the same people complaining about church bells use all sorts of noise-making devices at home and in their gardens, such as leaf blowers...!

    Frances, you are right about the timeless quality.

    Andressa, thank you for stopping by! I've had a look at your blog but unfortunately do not really understand the language.

  7. What a nice thought -- waking to distant chiming of bells. We don't have any in the suburb where I live...and I didn't know how much I missed them until I read your blog.

  8. I grew up across from a church and actually find the ringing of church bells a little disconcerting. I really don't know why. Maybe it reminds me of the stresses of adolescence or my problems with the Catholic church. In any case, in the summer I wake up to birds and in the Fall, my husband's voice chiming, "Time to get up!" : }

  9. Mark, one of the churches is just down the road; I can see the spire (an eyesore made of concrete, built in the 1970s) from my window. Aren't you about to move? Maybe at your new address, you'll have the chance to hear the bells again.

    Sonia, the birds - mainly blackbirds - wake me with their most beautiful songs in spring and early summer, too. Actually, I don't know what is it that gets me up on a summer morning: the light, birdsong, church bells, my cat demanding breakfast, or the simple fact that I need to go to the bathroom?

  10. One of my favorite books...The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy l. Sayers...explains the ringing of the bells and is a classic and fascinating read.

  11. Jill, I wonder whether the ringing of the bells follows the same rules in Germany as in England. Does she mention the "long" ringing I have tried to describe?

  12. Kay, I just realized that your comment came through almost at the same moment when I replied to the comments above yours - but you know I was not ignoring you! On the contrary, thinking of you today especially and hoping that you are OK.

  13. Our balcony faces the local Catholic cathedral & we are bested with the sounds of bells too.

    There is something very calming about the bells - I love it too.


  14. What a wonderful thing. I can't imagine what this must be like. I'm sorry the morning one is gone, and I hope you can figure out who you can ask to find out why. This was such a beautiful posting, completely unique.

  15. Hello:
    Would that the bells sounded out across the Blogosphere to announce your latest post which we have, alas, very nearly missed. It would appear that the 'feed' from 'From My Mental Library' is, at present, unstable, sometimes with us, sometimes not. All very tedious.

    We can think of nothing more joyful than having the days punctuated to the sound of bells and do hope that the missing one is but a temporary glitch. Here we love to hear the church bells sound the middle of each day although we are not conscious of them throughout the rest of the day. We shall listen anew tomorrow.

  16. Elizabeth, yes, you know what it sounds like. Do you also use them as your "pace maker" for the day?

    Nan, I'm glad you like this post, thank you! It felt odd to post something without a photo in it - haven't done that in a while...

    Jane and Lance - at the moment, blogger pretends that I am not following any blogs, which is definitely not true. The site has its glitches, so I hope you'll be able to "see" me popping up on your dashboard with no difficulty the next time I post.

  17. Sadkly church bells - once the pride or our nation - are nowehere near as common as they once were. Most only ring now for services unless you are lucky enough to catch th3e occasional bell-ringers practice.
    The nearest bell to us tolls for services on a Sunday but we can only vaguely hear it and even then the wind has to be in the right direction.

  18. We have a small oriental bell here at home near our front door. It is actually more off a charm (being a Filipino-Chinese) rather than a home accessory. They believe that ringing it can ward off evil spirits. Anyway,I love the sound of church bells, especially if its from the old big church bells. I actually want to try ringing a church bell, it looks fun when Quasimodo (the church of Notre Dame) does it.

  19. Scriptor, just for Sunday service really isn't much bell-ringing, is it!

    Denise, as Frances Garrood commented a bit further up, it is not as easy as it looks :-)

  20. When I was a kid growing up in the dullest and most boring English village imaginable, our village church was so crappy that it didn't have a bell. Instead it had a kind of tape-loop of bell peals which was distributed to the faithful and the unfaithful alike via a public address system in the spire. Something about its slipping and speeding up was utterly laughable and we were always very relieved when it stopped.
    In general, I have noticed that English church bells have a different sound to most of those I have in, say, France. I think we must cast ours out of different metal as, frankly, I have heard some very weedy offering elsewhere in Europe. Of course, in Germany all bells have probably been made since 1523 to an ancient traditional recipe allowing only iron, tin and copper with no other additives of lesser metals. Having rarely been there on a Sunday, I couldn't comment on the sound they make but it seems like they are every bit as magnificent as those I hear every Sunday here in Chipping Sodbury.

  21. Perl, you have just won the "Longest Comment on Librarian's Blog" Award - thank you :-)
    During one of many holidays I spent in France with my parents when I was a kid, we went to visit a... hmm... how do you call it? A bell smithy? A bell manufactory? No idea what the proper term here is, but it was quite impressive although I have forgotten too many details in order to give a consistend description of the whole experience.
    And you could be quite right - I am convinced there is something like a Bundesgesetz for Bell Making in Germany, regulating it down to the smallest detail!

  22. Church bells rang on Sunday in the little hamlet where I was born and grew up. The country school I went to also rang the same kind of bell which told the kids in town a mile away that the teacher had arrives. Soon after she ran the bell again and that meant classes would begin in ten minutes. It was just enough time, usually to make it if you were running late.

  23. I think one of the most interesting aspects of church bells it what tune they play.
    When I was a child we lived in an apartment over the town square (place with all the shops) and I could see the church clock and it would ring twice a day with when I know now is the Big Ben tune:

    Like you said there is something comforting about the sound, something reliable and soothing. Not to mention the size of some of these bells! don't forget the most famous bells from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" Movie.
    THE BELLS.....


  24. Hello Abe, and welcome to my blog!
    The elementary school I went to from age 6 to 9 had a very shrill bell, the kind that shook me rather violently out of the boredom-induced kind of slumber that sometimes descended upon me when lessons were just too dull and I was thinking of all the lovely things I could be doing right now. Later, at the "big school" which was an ugly concrete building back then considered ultra modern, the bell was a four-tone gong, quite melodious really.

    Lorraine, we call that the Westminster tune in Germany, and it is so famous everyone recognizes it, even those who have never actually been to London. I must admit I have never seen the Nôtre Dame movie but I more or less know the story.

  25. Your photos are exquisite! I've enjoyed visiting. I'm over from Julie's bells are wonderful, aren't they. It always seem so right and good when they peal out the melody of a beloved hymn.

  26. Thank you, Maggie Ann!
    By the way - would you believe it?! I woke up this morning not only to the four bell strokes for the full hour and the seven to indicate it was 7.00 am, but, a moment later, to the long morning ringing I have been missing for almost 3 months now!
    (By the way, the bells here in town do not peal out hymn melodies.)