A sound that I’ve not heard for some time on my regular Sunday morning bike rides through the back lanes of Cornwall has been that of church bells. Social distancing has meant that the ringers cannot get together in the church towers to ring. Moreover, there’s been no Sunday services until recently, so the point of ringing the bells on Sunday mornings has been rather lost.
Looking for more information on the subject of Cornwall’s church bells, my religious advisor informed me that St Buryan Church in West Penwith is reputed to have the heaviest peal of six bells anywhere in the world. However, the six bells of St Buryan Church turn out to be not that ancient. In 1878 Edwin Dunkin, in his comprehensive survey of church bells in Cornwall, noted that there were just three bells at St Buryan, dating from the century between 1638 and 1738.
The eighteenth-century bell was cast in St Buryan village and the churchwardens’ accounts include some fascinating details of the costs. Here are some extracts …
For twenty stricks of sea cole 13-0
For one hundred fourty 3 pound of iron att 4d per pound for ye furnace £2-7- 8
Paid Robert Gibbs for 5 days work 6-8
For carring the goods from Hayle 13 hors and 3 men 16-0
Pd Joseph Jefry for hang the tackle to strike and raise ye bell 2 days 4-0
For carring the Bricks and lime from penzance and the Cowl and Mr Bodennar tackle to church town horses 42 £1-1-0
To go to penzance with the horses for the goods 12 men and 8 boys 12-0
A fourth bell was added around 1900 and in the 1990s a full six bell peal was restored, with two new bells cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. This foundry can be dated back to 1570 and has supplied bells to other Cornish churches – Sennen and St Mary’s on Scilly for example. In 1752 it had made the original Liberty Bell destined for Philadelphia, although the bell had to be recast in America. The iconic British bell – Big Ben – was also recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1858 from an original made at Stockton on Tees. The company ceased trading in 2017 and, despite opposition from locals and heritage groups, permission has now been given by the Government for the site to be converted into a ‘boutique hotel’.