The Diamond Jubilee, a Royal Visit, and a Summer of Bells
Tuesday 15th May was always going to be a busy day at Whitechapel as the Royal Jubilee bells were scheduled on the works diary to be loaded and taken for their trial assembly on dry land in Edenbridge before being erected on a barge for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant. At a week’s notice, the day became even busier as we were asked to host a visit by HRH The Prince of Wales and other guests to view the bells before they went!
Having been visited by HM The Queen and HRH Prince Philip three years ago, we were already practiced as to how to swing into action with regard to coping with all the security visits, briefings and of course the highlight - the inspection of the premises by the explosive dogs! The collection time for the bells was put back from the morning to 3pm, Neil Thomas and Peter Scott (our bellhangers who were working on the frame down at Edenbridge) left site and came up by train just in time to be present for the visit. Neil was part of an extensive media crew that included Sun photographer Arthur Edwards and Valentine Low, royal correspondent for The Times, as well as radio and TV crews.
Our guest visitors included Lord Salisbury, Chairman, and Adrian Evans, Pageant Master, from the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. From the Church of St James, Garlickhythe (who are loaning the bells to the Pageant) were The Reverend Guy Treweek, Vicar, Alderman Andrew Parmley, who was chiefly responsible for raising the funding for these bells and Dickon Love, Captain of the Bellringers who would ring on the barge.
HRH The Prince of Wales arrived just after 1.00 p.m. and was greeted outside the foundry by the Deputy Lieutenant of Tower Hamlets, Commander John Ludgate. Alan and Kathryn Hughes then showed Prince Charles into the foundry, where he met and spoke to the moulding staff currently working on the production of the new ring of 12 for High Wycombe. He watched a cast of small bells in the sand foundry and then went into the engineering workshop where he was introduced to the guests and was also shown a model of the barge - complete with its tiny bells on board.
Some time was then spent inspecting the Royal Jubilee Bells themselves which had been set out on the floor. This gave our guests the opportunity to see the results of their fund raising and the Prince of Wales was then invited to strike the bell bearing his name, the 6th bell of the peal, which was raised on the crane for him by Peter Trick, the foundry’s engineering foreman. "There is nothing like a good bong" the Prince said with a smile, and he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Prince Charles also struck the largest bell, Elizabeth, and afterwards met the rest of the foundry staff where he spoke with enthusiasm about the quality of the castings and particularly their inscriptions.
As the visitors left, there was a heavy hailstorm. One of the detectives announced that it was hailing – "I know, I forecast it" said Prince Charles (the visit was of course only a day or two after he and the Duchess of Cornwall had broadcast the Weather forecast on television). Although he left in hail and rain, the Prince took time to greet the crowd which had gathered outside in Whitechapel Road, and the visit left us with a sense of real anticipation of a wonderful project shortly to come to fruition. This has given a real lift to everyone here, as the Prince of Wales certainly seemed to enjoy his visit and showed great interest and enthusiasm in the intricacies of our craft
Bells are featuring large in the public eye this summer. Shortly after the Royal visit ended, the lorry arrived and the Royal Jubilee Bells left (in a downpour) for their trial assembly on dry land at Edenbridge during Wednesday and Thursday. The bells were successfully tried out on the evening of Thursday 17th, though outside the steel fabricator’s workshops it was more than a little odd to hear church bells ringing with no tower in sight! The bells were immediately dismantled and transported early the following morning to Denton Wharf at Gravesend. Here they were re-assembled and lifted onto the barge, where they later underwent river trials before leading the flotilla of a thousand boats down the Thames in the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the afternoon of June 3rd.
We all hoped for a still, clear day to make the task of ringing as easy as it could be on board, but alas it was not to be. Nevertheless, the television coverage of change ringing on a moving barge at such a high profile public event designed to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee was an unequalled opportunity to publicise bells and ringing which hopefully will create a wider interest and bring new recruits to ringing as a result.
The processes of moulding and casting the Royal Jubilee Bells were extensively filmed. Indeed, media attention has been considerable at Whitechapel for the past three months, already over 40 TV and radio interviews for countries around the world have been recorded for pre-Jubilee and pre-Olympic broadcasts. With the world’s media for the Olympic coverage not due in London until mid-June, we rather feel we "ain’t seen nothing yet" as far as this is concerned, as we understand that some 20,000 media crew are expected to move into the Olympic site, which of course is less than five miles from the foundry. We are doing our utmost to accommodate considerable inconvenience from the media in order to promote the art of change ringing and the craft of bell founding to a much wider audience than it would usually be possible to reach.
Whilst the Martin Creed "All the Bells" project has brought about some controversy, it now seems that many ringers are embracing it simply as an opportunity to ring, to celebrate and to let people know that Britain is still the Ringing Isle. Whilst some of our staff will be late in that morning as they are ringing at their own churches for the event, the rest of us at Whitechapel will be ringing our bells at 8.00 am on July 27th. We have a chime which will ring changes in the yard, a slow swinging tolling bell, we will have a bell set up for full circle ringing in the back foundry and intend to have some post bells and handbells rung out on the pavement to make as much noise – and to attract as much attention to the project - as we are able!
Later that day of course, the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games will begin with the ringing of the largest harmonically tuned bell in the World.
Despite a number of ill judged and misinformed accusations which have been made against this company and others over the production of this enormous bell, the fact that the Ceremonies Creative Team chose to commission a bell to begin the Ceremony - rather than use any other instrument or icon - should be considered as a significant recognition of the continued importance of bells in our lives. In particular, it was their desire to create something that was unique and special that would form a lasting legacy for the Olympic Games. The Ceremonies Team was captivated by the idea of the bell, how a bell sounds, what it is used for: to communicate both joy and sadness, the history of our craft in making them and above all that the bell is a sound which still makes people listen and take notice.
The staff of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry are immensely proud to have been awarded the contracts to provide the bells for both the Jubilee and Olympic projects which will bring bells and bell ringing into such high profile this summer, and it is a privilege to have had our summer of bells further enhanced by this unexpected Royal visit.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in 'The Ringing World'.