When harmony is elusive
It doesn’t happen often. Most times over the last 800 years the tensions were dismissed as a mild annoyance. But about every 400 years Portchester sounds just a little vexed.
The last big eruption was in 1589 but I imagine the previous 400 years also lacked harmony. Tensions take time to come to the boil — such is the pace of community evolution here — and bold action is rarely demanded.
Back in the 16th century matters clearly came to a head. Action was taken but didn’t immediately take full effect — probably because only one bell was fitted into the new three-bell frame ambitiously installed in the belfry of St Mary’s church in the far corner of the Castle grounds. Forty-three years later the Parishioners of Portchester rose to the ambition and slotted another bell into the frame. With the enhanced status of now becoming a two-bell church, ambition ran riot and a year later the third bell (maker unknown) was acquired and installed.
But all was not well. The three bells, made at different times, with different casting techniques, in different foundries, were, sadly, far from harmonious. The new-fangled 15th century innovation, Change Ringing — with belfry bragging rights for peals of eight or ten bells — was not well suited to ‘an odd collection’ of three discordant bells.
Resourceful, in the spirit of the age, the simple solution was never to ring all three together. So, the deepest note was sounded 15 minutes before a church service and then the next bell took over ten minutes later, and finally the two-minute (hurry up) bell beckoned the stragglers.
Tensions (and precautionary rules) relaxed until around 100 years ago when the original wooden frame urgently needed strengthening. The forces unleashed when three bells were rung together were judged as likely to be as damaging to the structure as they were offensive to the ear. Now, 400 years on from their 16th and 17th century installations, the proposal to retire the old bells and add a new peal of eight bells with the advantage of new tuning technology has ruffled a few sallies (the fluffy bit on the bell rope) and prompted all sorts of inventive alternatives.
St Mary’s old bells are undoubtably precious artefacts. Modifying them for modern use would be costly, not without risk, not guaranteed to improve their sound, but certain to destroy their historic authenticity. Their form may have survived but they never did give joyful sound. With the new proposed peal, four hundred years of tension could be laid to rest and, much like those ambitious parishioners of 1589, we could have a crack at investing in a sound future.
The bells, to be fair, have earned a long service award but should now be retired and conserved (in situ) for the enlightenment of students of ancient monuments and great moments in the life of Portchester. Is it possible that a new ‘Portchester Sound’ might, for the next 400 years, celebrate a new harmony?
This article was witten for ‘Bruno’s Blog’ — published by Cllr. Gerry Kelly of Fareham Borough Council for Portchester LibDems. It is also listed by this author in the series ‘Portchester — the place that I call home.