the sound of sunken bells

from sea cathedrals made of sand
homecoming bells are tolling
how you are freed from captive land
full circle you’ve come rolling

Emily Portman, Sunken Bells

There are two stories told about Rostherne Mere.  The first is that, though thirty miles inland, it is connected to the sea by underground channels running far beneath the Cheshire plain.  The second is that it contains a sunken bell.  Local legend tells that when the bells of Rostherne church were being hung, the largest and heaviest broke its rope three times; the third time it happened, a workman swore, upon which the bell rolled into the mere and sank – possibly crushing the poor workman on the way, depending on who tells the tale.  But the bell did not sink without trace, because each Easter Sunday a mermaid swims inland from the Irish Sea, along those underground channels, to ring it.

All around our coastline – and some way inland, as well – there are sunken bells which can still be heard tolling in the depths, so the stories say.  Some of them sank when a workman or a ship’s captain swore or blasphemed; others slipped from the grasp of would-be bell-thieves, destroying their boats before disappearing underwater.  Transgressors were usually killed in these tales: the bells are huge, implacable instruments of judgement, and remain strangely eloquent in their underwater setting.  The Bosham tenor bell echoes its sisters when they ring out from the church tower, so that the full octave can still be heard; Forrabury sounds when storms are brewing at sea; and anyone who dares, on Halloween, to spend some time on Black Nab rock, and call their sweetheart’s name, will hear it echoed by the breeze accompanied with the ringing of marriage bells from the sunken chime of Whitby abbey.

Up from the heart of ocean the mellow music peals,
Where the sunlight makes his golden path, and the sea-mew flits and wheels,

For many a chequered century, untired by flying time,
The bells, no human fingers touch, have rung their hidden chime

Here in the deep, bells speak when people cannot.  When a settlement disappears beneath the water, the bells are what remains of its voice, ringing out across generations to tell the world of what was lost.  The town of Dunwich – a port which once rivalled London – was eaten away by coastal erosion until, by 1912, all that remained was the ruined church tower “teetering on the edge of the cliff.  Now nothing remains on dry land.”  But legends of its bells still ringing from beneath the waves carry the story of this East Anglian Atlantis back to shore.  Further north, the residents of Cromer tell of a strange noise that is sometimes heard from the sea, over the wind and the waves: the lost village of Shipden, still ringing its church bells for parishioners who come no more.

So rich is the mythical resonance of this sound that we use sunken bells to tell the stories of drowned villages which never had churches or rang bells themselves.  Capel Celyn, the flashpoint of Welsh political resistance in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was (as its name suggests) a community centred on a nonconformist chapel, with no spire and no bells.  Yet its story so haunts the imagination that over the decades it has become an archetype, merging with other mythical lost lands and sought with the same hiraeth:

“My father would tell the mysterious and entrancing story that the water shrouded. Of course I already knew the story – as he had told it a thousand times before – of the flooded village below. If the summer was hot, I would strain my eyes for a glimpse of an ancient spire that I knew could be seen if the water was low. At the same time my ears would search the silence beyond the car engine for the tolling of the ancient bell. I never saw or heard anything, but I always imagined I did.”

David Leigh-Ellis, Deluge and Flashpoint

The most direct mythical forbear of Capel Celyn is, of course, Cantre’r Gwaelod, whose sunken bells have been the subject of a famous song for centuries:

As Ar Log comment on the video above, it is likely that “clychau Aberdyfi,” the bells of Aberdovey, are the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod “yn atseinio o’r dyfnderoedd,” echoing from the deep.  And as of 2011, they have echoed again in Marcus Dovey’s Time and Tide Bell, installed at Aberdyfi, and at 12 other sites around the British coastline, to be rung by the sea at high tide.  Each of the 12 bells has its own unique inscription, capturing something of the story of that shoreline; the bell at Aberdyfi takes its inscription from a poem by R. Williams Parry: Cantre’r Gwaelod Nos y Boddiad, the night on which it drowned:

uwch llanw                                         above the                   tide
erch llawenhaf                                                     
awesome        I gladden

These might not be the first bells specifically designed to sound when submerged, but they might be the first to take legends of the sound of submerged bells and make them a real part of the soundscape of our modern coastline.  The message is resurgent, optimistic: the sea takes, but it also gives, just as the tide both rises and falls to ring the bells.  As the artist writes:

“The Time and Tide Bell is to create, celebrate, and reinforce connections, between different parts of the country, between the land and the sea, between ourselves, our history, and our environment.”

These connections, like our coastlines, are forever changing; but in them, the echoes of the past still sound.

white chalk

65 million years ago and more, microscopic creatures lived and died in the warm waters where our island came to be.  The traces of their skeletons fell in drifts to the sea bed where, layer upon layer, they formed the mineral which became our most iconic coastline.  The white cliffs of our Southern shore are really nothing more than a crush of tiny bones.

Chalk, to me, will always mean Sussex – especially the stretch of coast along the undercliff walk, east of Brighton, where I used to spend my lazy Sunday afternoons battling the wind for the papers at Ovingdean gap.  The rock is so soft that a defence system of groynes and walkways has been built to separate the sea from its natural shore.  Banked in by glaring chalk and concrete, the undercliff is a strange place to walk, but people love to be beside the seaside.  On quiet days (in old clothes) you can lean against the cliff and feel the whole landmass of Britain at your back.

The pebble beach beneath these cliffs, just past the Marina, is an excellent hunting-ground for hagstones: nodules of flint which work their way free of the chalk as the cliffs erode, with their softer minerals smoothed away by the sea to leave a perfect hole.  British folklore credits these stones will all kinds of powers – though a true hagstone, it is said, will float on water, something none of my flint specimens have ever done.


Two years ago I tried to walk this whole landscape, along the South Downs way to the Seven Sisters cliffs, where the white chalk plunges dramatically into the sea.  The walk was a promise, of sorts, to the sea, made one lunchtime while standing up to my ankles in cold brine.  I hated my job (not the people, or even the organisation; just the job) and I often walked down to the beach at lunchtime, easing my feet into the sea and letting the waters carry my worries away, before heading back to the office and another round of worries.  I decided, that lunchtime, to learn all I could about this coastline, the better to appreciate the sea that was such a big part of my life at the time.

In the end, I made it all the way to Alfriston – the last leg! – before turning back with a fever.  Over the next three days of convalescence I found myself shunning music and television, unwilling to relinquish the silence of the high Downs.  There was no lingering sense of unfinished business; only a lasting impression of a quiet, open landscape, older and wilder than we know.  The cry of the lapwing and the song of the lark, the unceasing challenge of the wind, all kept coming back to me in daydreams.

This Easter, I am going back – not to finish the walk (I hope I never finish walking on those Downs) but to drink in as much as I can of this sea-formed, wind-washed landscape.


[postscript: almost everything I know about geology I owe to Ian Vince’s brilliantly readable book, ‘The Lie of the Land‘]

seals and selkies

There is something curiously human about seals, about their dark, dilated eyes and friendliness towards us.  It is not surprising that there is such a wealth of stories about seals taking human form and walking in our world, or acting as guides and protectors as we venture into theirs.  One of the most famous of these stories – retold beautifully by Clarissa Pinkola Estés as ‘Sealskin, Soulskin’ – tells of seal-maidens who take off their seal-skins to dance in human form by the light of the moon.  My personal favourite folkloric encounter with these creatures, however, takes the form of a human journey into their world, deep in the waters beyond John O’Groats.

The Scottish story of the Seal-catcher and the Merman, as told by Elizabeth Grierson in the Penguin book of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales, is initially a tale about “the one that got away” – the king seal, stabbed by the seal-catcher for his enormous pelt, who escaped into the water with the knife still in his side.  Having given up the chase and turned for home, the seal-catcher meets a stranger on the road who takes him to the edge of the water and pushes him in, dragging him down to the deep-lying kingdom of the seals, where the king now lies dying.  Only the hand that struck the blow can heal him.  The seal-catcher, now transformed into a seal himself, finds he is deeply sorry for the harm that he has caused, and half-expects the seals to seek revenge.  But these are peaceful creatures:

“they crowded round him, rubbing their soft noses against his fur to show their sympathy, and implored him not to be afraid, for no harm would befall him”

All they ask of him is that he removes the knife and washes and dresses the wound – and that he swears an oath to never harm another seal again.  So he swears, even though he knows his family may starve without the money that the seal-pelts bring.  When they return him to the shore, and his seal-form falls away, the reformed seal-catcher turns to shake the hand of the stranger/seal who had accompanied him – but into his outstretched hand, the stranger places a bag of gold, with the words:

“Men shall never say that we took away an honest man’s work without giving him some compensation for it, and here is what will keep you in comfort to your life’s end.”

The tale is fabulous in the truest sense – it could be a fable for these troubled times.  There are not so many seal-hunters now, but seals are still hunted, culled and killed in conflicts with fisheries; they also face contamination from marine pollution, and entanglement in fishing nets and in the human debris that litters our seas.  And only we, who wield these knives, can heal these wounds.

Yesterday, I put my name forward to volunteer with the Friends of Hilbre Island.  One of the many services they offer is seal-watching sessions for the visiting public.  On this island – and in many other places like it – we really can visit the realm of the seals.  And with compassion, with the sight of what we have done, we can inspire the desire to undo it, and the resolve to never see it done again.