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.