A visit to the bell tower of St James' Church, Stanstead Abbotts
Recently, while taking photographs for this website, I was able to enjoy rare access to the bell chamber and tower at St James'. Sadly, cramped space and health and safety prohibit the opening of the tower to public view but even if access were available, it's not a trip for the faint hearted!
Ascending the tower, the stairway is dusty and narrow. It is also profoundly atmospheric in its silent cold. You get the feeling of joining ancient carpenters, millwrights and bell founders who in the past made their way up here to hang the bells which now resound from the church on special occasions.
A Mr Conyard passed this way in 1913 in the year before Europe descended into fire, his name scratched in the stone for all eternity. 200 years earlier, a certain "TS" preceded him in October 1712, the year that Oliver Cromwell's son, Richard, died.
With great events abroad in the world, more humble folk whose ears heard only voice, and wind and birdsong, scaled these steps in silent anonymity to hang new bells, adjust the clappers or even tap new tiles upon the ancient roof.
Arrival in the bell chamber itself is humbling. Here in the dust three bells hang ready to do their duty, loyal servants moved by pull of rope to swing in clarion call across the fields to Roydon, Stanstead Abbotts and beyond.
At one side, an ancient piece of equipment rests, no doubt following some refurbishment and left there for posterity rather than having to dismantle it and take it down to be destroyed. We are thankful for this gift; it opens our eyes to a day long gone.
The bells themselves hang heavy in the gloom. Two of them are old indeed, dating from 1605 and 1617 and cast by Robert Oldfield; the third a relative newcomer, was cast in 1790 by John Briant.
While elements of the mechanism have been modified to suit modern materials and to keep the chamber safe, the beams that hold it all together are as an ancient latticework straining in the dark to hold this mighty vastness. A moment's quiet reflection here takes you to another time, another age, where cars and 'planes no longer roam and our place in the world is so much stripped of its arrogant complacency.
Here I stop and make my way briefly to peep from the roof. I stare across the church itself and over to the great house of Stansteadbury.
I am as some old rector in the dusty autumn of my years thinking of the souls who passed this way and worked and worshipped in this parish in ancient days gone by.