“Imprisoned in a cage of sound”

Sounds transcend time, evoking ages past.

In ancient Persia the sorna; in Israel the shofar; and in medieval Europe the shawm. Instruments that mark rites of passage. Oldest of all are bells.

The earliest archaeological evidence of bells dates from Neolithic China around 3000 BCE, where clapper-bells made of pottery have been discovered at several archaeological sites. Clay bells had changed into bronze by 2000 BCE.

The Great Bell of King Dhammazedi of Burma (1484) may have been the largest bell ever made. In 1608, it was lost in the Yangon River after being stolen from a temple by the Portuguese. The bell is reported to have weighed 330 tons and people are currently trying to locate it and salvage it.

In West Challow, a small village in Britain at the foot of the Berkshire Downs, there is Norman church called St Laurence. It has a 12th century nave with a 15th century chancel and porch. The windows in the east, north, and south walls are original.

The church has two bells that can be seen in the photo. One is by Ellis Knight of Reading, 1629; the other dates from 1282 and the reign of Edward I. It has a relief inscription in Lombardic letters around its rim – Povel Le Poter Me Fist (Paul the Potter made me). A London bell-founder, little is known about him, although this is the earliest English bell bearing any founder’s name.

A few miles from West Challow lies the village of Uffington, where the English poet John Betjeman lived at Garrards Farm during the 1930s. His local parish church, St. Mary’s – with its distinctive octagonal tower and Early English architecture – is known as the “Cathedral of the Vale”. Betjeman had in mind the five bells of this church when he wrote his poem “Uffington” first published in the collection High and Low (1966).

Betjeman was fond of churches and bells. He even called his autobiography in blank verse Summoned by Bells. Their sound enabled him to plumb depths of memory and misgiving about the passing of time, as he revealed in “Uffington”:

“Tonight we feel the muffled peal
Hang on the village like a pall;
It overwhelms the towering elms –
That death-reminding dying fall;
The very sky no longer high
Comes down within the reach of all.
Imprisoned in a cage of sound
Even the trivial seems profound.”


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

2 thoughts on ““Imprisoned in a cage of sound””

  1. I heard a paper a couple of years ago saying that when Catholicism first established missions in the Philippines, to be a member of the Catholic community you were required to live within the sound of the church bell so that could you could participate in the various religious rituals and prayers that were required to be practised. First time I’d heard of what I’d call an acoustic-based community.

    1. Reminiscent of the belief that to be a true Cockney you had to be born within the sound of Bow Bells – which, I guess, depended on the way the wind blew.

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