For whom the bell tolls – The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

“Established A.D. 1570” the sign above the door proclaims proudly. That date alone makes the Whitechapel Bell Foundry the UK’s oldest manufacturing business. In reality, the company can trace its history back much further to around 1420 but as Alan Hughes, whose family have owned the foundry for generations, explains – “round here, we tend not to worry about the odd hundred and fifty years”.

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Step beyond the Foundry’s magnificent oaken facade and you might as well have lost a couple of hundred years somewhere en route. Gone is the multicultural shabby chic of modern east London. Enter instead a Dickensian world of wood panelling, narrow stairwells and rickety floorboards. Waiting in Foundry’s front room, I spy an old pendulum clocking-in clock complete with name cards handwritten in beautiful italic script: It’s almost a surprise not to see one for Bob Cratchit. When Alan himself arrives, his striking resemblance to Michael Caine only reinforces the sense of being in some lavish period drama.

Although normally off-limits, on various Saturdays the Whitechapel Bell Foundry opens its doors to general public.  Dates are announced in September for the following year and sell out almost immediately. The rarity factor helps: There are now just 8 foundries left in the world so anyone with a love of bells is hardly spoiled for choice. For many, however, the real attraction is the connection to one bell in particular: Big Ben, recast at Whitechapel in 1858. No sound defines London better than that beloved bell. Londoners lined the streets and cheered when Big Ben first made the journey from Whitechapel to Westminster by horse drawn carriage. All through the Second World War it rang, a symbol of defiance against Hitler. Even today if, on rare occasion, something goes wrong, it always makes headline news and countless column inches will analyse when we’re going to get our bongs back.

Even though large bells still account for the majority of Whitechapel’s business, nowadays they’re a more modest size than Big Ben’s mighty 13.5 tonnes: “Even if we could melt the metal, we couldn’t get anything bigger out the door!”. The metal, a mixture of copper and 22% tin, is heated in the foundry’s furnaces and then cast using a specially constructed loam mould. Large bell casting only takes place on a Friday as they need at least the weekend to cool down. Sure enough, the first mould we come across is still warm to the touch. ‘What’s the secret to successful mould making?’ someone asks, enjoying the heat. Good clay, goat hair and horse poo explains Alan with a grin. “Horse manure is porous so it helps to let any gases escape”. Hands are rapidly removed from the warm mould.

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The size and shape of a bell has a significant influence on its tone. It is possible just to cast a bell and have done with it (a so-called “maiden bell”) but to achieve that aesthetic, harmonious bell sound, tuning is required. By careful removal of metal from the inside of the bell, the tuner can sharpen or flatten the various notes of the bell from the ‘strike note’, the sound the bell makes when it’s first struck, to the ‘hum note’, the lingering sound produced by the vibration of the entire bell (There are in fact five key notes the bell tuner is concerned with). Modern technology has helped considerably in providing precise sound analysis, so much so that someone tone deaf could now do a bell tuner’s job, but it still takes extraordinary skill to know exactly how much metal to remove and from where on the bell:  “One mistake – We smash up the bell and start all over again”.

Given the precision of the work and the pristine world of modern manufacturing, Whitechapel’s workshop comes as quite a shock. It’s a riot of equipment, dust, debris and of course bells, which crowd every surface and every corner. Alan’s good humoured safety warning at the start of the tour suddenly takes on a level of seriousness : “There are literally dozens of ways to hurt yourself here: We’d prefer it if you didn’t!”. Conditions are so cramped in the upstairs area used for small bell production, the foundry can’t employ anyone there over 5ft8. I enjoy the momentary satisfaction of standing tall at 5ft 3 alongside my doubled-up tour companions.

Heightism aside, how does Whitechapel recruit? By comparison with pop star, astronaut or banker, bell making hardly seems a likely choice of career so it’s a real surprise to learn the foundry receives far more applications than it could ever have positions. With only 20 staff, the team is small, bordering on tiny, and people tend to stay – the nearby wall is covered with memorials to all those who’ve died or retired on the job. We’ve always been far more interested in people who actually want to join, says Alan. A passion for bells is far more relevant than previous experience. As if to make a point, he picks up a handbell. It’s a beautiful thing, all gleaming bronze and seductive curves, and the sound it makes is exquisite – rich, resonant, far removed from the shrill, tarnished cry that once summoned me to school assembly.

How rarely do we get the chance to appreciate a bell? For most of us, it’s simply the sound of order and obedience. Fire drill – leave now, door bell – open up, bicycle – step aside, a symbol of compliance. It makes a business like the Whitechapel Bell Foundry all the more remarkable. Nothing about it complies with the modern world. Arcane industry, family values, hand craftsmanship. By rights it shouldn’t exist. Then again, as the irreverent company motto puts it : “Nothing is impossible: For those who don’t have to do it themselves”.

Xmas Past & Xmas Presents: 400 Years of Xmas Tradition at the Geffrye Museum

“I think there are more people in this store than there are in the whole of Canada”

6pm. 23rd December. Just two shopping days to go until Christmas and I still haven’t bought a single present. I’m clearly not the only one who’s left it all to the last minute. My Canadian friend wasn’t exaggerating – the World and his Wife really are in John Lewis. Not that it makes me feel any better, any more than the walls of novelty gifts screaming at me to “Keep Calm”. Back in 1647, the Puritans tried to ban Christmas. Right now, life would be a lot easier if they’d succeeded.

They reckon us Brits will spend a staggering £22.3bn this year on Christmas. If Christmas UK were a country, it’d be about the same size as Bahrain and they’re a member of OPEC. Probably a lesson in there somewhere. Want to survive Christmas? Shop early, spend hard, strike oil.

It’s easy to assume the commercialisation of Christmas is something recent, but in reality, we’ve been over-indulging at Xmas for at least 150 years. Records from 1868 show Lord Braybrooke and his family enjoyed no less than 10 courses for Christmas lunch, polishing off (amongst others) 34 rabbits, 18 partridges and 2 ducks. Even a basic Christmas lunch of goose, pudding and stuffing would cost an ordinary man a week’s wages.

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We also have the Victorians to thank for other essential elements of Christmas. The printed Christmas card first appeared in 1843 (the brainchild of Sir Henry Cole who’d grown tired of hand-writing seasonal notes to numerous friends and colleagues), the Christmas cracker in 1848. As for the Christmas tree – The idea of decorating fir trees had been around in Germany for many years, but it wasn’t until the 1840s and Victoria & Albert’s enthusiasm for the custom that the English practice really caught on.

Of course, it was this fascination with Christmas Past which had got me into trouble now with Christmas present(s). It was all going so well. I’d booked a day off work last week. I was all set to go Christmas shopping. Then I heard about the Christmas exhibition at the Geffrye Museum. It sounded so much more appealing than battling crowds and battering credit cards on Oxford Street. Off to Hoxton I went instead. What can I say? Christmas has always been a time of giving in to temptation.

The Geffrye Museum is London’s Museum of the Home. Located in the magnificent 18th Century almshouses built at the bequest of Sir Robert Geffrye (a former Lord Mayor of London), it explores how the typical English middle-class home has evolved over the years. Like many of London’s best-kept secrets, it’s free to enter so there’s no excuse not to visit the café. Even if you’ve no interest in domestic design, its smoked salmon bagels are sensational – not to be missed.

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Every year, the museum plays host to its annual Christmas exhibition. All the period rooms are authentically decorated, each recreating seasonal festivities from a different period of history. You squeeze through the museum’s wormhole corridors suddenly to emerge in another moment and another time – from a 17th Century hall to the self-conscious style of a modern day loft.

For all this, what struck me the most during my visit wasn’t how much Christmas had changed, but how little. A speed dating session with 400 years of history and I’d met fabrics and furnishings in every shape, colour and style but Christmas? Maybe three types at most: The feasting and frivolity of the 1600s with their semi-pagan undertones; the neglect of the 18th Century; the Victorian revival. Look in on a late 19th Century drawing room and most of the elements of a modern Christmas are recognisable but even in a 1630s hall, the decorative holly is comfortably familiar.

I never really understood how much I appreciated the stability of Christmas until one year when it was all change. Christmas in transit through South East Asia : Shops open, sunshine, not a Brussels sprout in sight (ok, so maybe it wasn’t all bad!). I missed all our silly family traditions more than words could say. There’s so little in modern life that’s reassuring and routine. How many other customs have just fallen by the wayside? It’s easy to criticize the commercialization of Christmas, but it has at least helped to keep it on the map, to make it a constant. Would I really make the same time for giving and sharing, food family and friends without the pressure of collective expectation?

Cards, crackers and the pudding no one eats. Leaving it all last minute again. Socks, family squabbles and snow (lack of): Some things about Christmas never change, but you know what, that’s just the way I like it.

Do need to shop earlier next year though!

Merry Christmas x

Going Out In Style: The Eerie World of London’s Victorian Cemeteries

I have a lot of time for the Victorians. They never did anything by halves. No matter how functional or utilitarian a building, they built it big and bold and beautiful. Today, we’re lucky if even the most essential of services are fit for purpose. What modern sewage works could be described as “elegant”, “ornamental” and “sumptuous”? Yet, the Abbey Mills Pumping Station from 1868 is all this and more. You may not be able to polish the proverbial, but Charles Driver’s Byzantine masterpiece comes pretty close.

If the Victorians treated sewage in style, they dealt with that other unpleasant side effect of life – death – with no less grandeur. The Nineteenth Century saw a marked shift away from simple burial in a parish churchyard to lavish, European style public cemeteries, beautifully landscaped with tomb-lined avenues and shady cypress trees.  Vast amounts of money were spent on grandiose memorials and prestigious plots. At a time when the average factory worker earned just 35p / week, prime cemetery places cost anything up to 10 guineas, the same as a house in wealthy Holland Park.

So what changed? Even though every parishioner had the right to be buried in their parish churchyard, massive increases in population plus a series of cholera epidemics meant the churchyards were running out of space. London was hardest hit : In the 50 years between 1800 and 1850, the city’s population more than doubled.  The writings of London doctor and social reformer, George Walker, are full of horrific descriptions of stinking shallow graves and overflowing decay. Eventually, Parliament bowed to public pressure : Between 1832 – 1841, they authorised the establishment of a seven commercial cemeteries in suburban districts around London. A decade later, the city’s churchyards were closed to further burials.

In all, the Victorian period saw over 100 cemeteries established around the city but these first few remain the most important. In 1981, the historian Hugh Meller christened them “The Magnificent Seven” and the nickname’s stuck ever since.  At the heart of their magnificence lies a complex Victorian relationship with death – The fact that death was all around and average life expectancy only 44, even for the wealthiest; the influence of Ancient Rome and the need for your name to live on after death; the far greater part played in everyday life by Christianity, the belief in the eternal soul and resurrection of the body. Queen Victoria herself set the social standard for the day, building memorial after memorial and staying in mourning for Prince Albert for over 40 years.

Each of the Magnificent Seven has its own distinct characteristic from the relative simplicity of Tower Hamlets to the splendour of West Norwood. By far the most famous is Highgate, something often ascribed to the fact Karl Marx is buried there although all the cemeteries have their fair share of celebrities. Its popularity in literature and film must also have helped. Either way, it’s undeniably magnificent and would certainly have figured in my list of favourites had it been possible to wander round freely – As it is, you can meet Mr. Marx and enjoy the East Cemetery at leisure, but visits to the older (and arguably more impressive) West Cemetery are as part of a guided tour only (For more information see www.highgatecemetery.org)

So which then are amongst my pick of London’s Magnificent Seven?

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Abney Park

Abney Park is everything you’d imagine an old cemetery to be. Although it was once the most impressively landscaped cemetery of the period, years of neglect left the 31 acre site wild and overgrown. Now a local nature reserve, gravestones and monuments peep through untamed woodland and ivy ensnares even the tallest statues. The effect is at once both magical and eerie – part fairy grotto, part Hammer House of Horror set. There’s even an old, ruined chapel at its heart just to complete the effect. In reality, however, the most famous thing ever filmed here is far less sinister – The video for Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.

Look out for – William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.

Brompton Cemetery

For a complete contrast, head west to Earls Court and Brompton Cemetery. Light, open and impeccably maintained, a grand carriage-way runs through the centre to a beautiful Italian-style chapel: It could be the grounds of lavish stately home. Created by architect Benjamin Baud, key to the design also was John Loudon, the Scottish botantist who would go on to write the single most important book of the period on cemetery design. He believed all townsfolk should have access to green ‘breathing spaces’ and saw cemeteries as the public gardens of the future.

Look out for – Peter Rabbett, Jeremiah Fisher & Mr.McGregor. Beatrix Potter apparently took inspiration for the names of her characters from tombstones in Brompton Cemetery.

Kensal Green

Last but by no means least is the grand old dame of London cemeteries, the 72 acre Kensal Green Cemetery. Although the oldest of the seven (it celebrates its 180th Birthday this year), for me it’s also the most vibrant, no doubt in part because it’s still a working cemetery. Old and new sit side by side, a poignant reminder that death comes to us all but also a celebration of the ever-continuing cycle of life. Not that the old is eclipsed by the new. In spite of the odd example of vandalism, Kensal Green is art gallery meets history lesson: No less than 140 monuments and buildings are listed, including a stunning Grade I Anglican chapel based on the temples of Ancient Greece (For the truly macabre, there’s an extensive network of coffin-lined catacombs to be found under the chapel; They’re currently closed but normally, you can take a tour on the first and third Sunday of the month).

Look out for – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer and one of the greatest Britons of all time.

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The word ‘cemetery’ come from the Greek ‘koimeterion’ or ‘a place of sleep’. London’s Victorian cemeteries are as much a respite for the living from city life as a resting place for the dead. Morbid, eerie, peaceful, sublime, they are a fascinating taste of times gone by, a gateway to another world; and you never know, you might even meet a few famous faces whilst you’re there.