Four Shires Guild of Bell Ringers

  1. TOC
  2. back
  3. next

La mode à la Française (or How the French do it)…

Helen and I went to France in August. We've been to France a number of times previously, but more recently it's been in our campervan, which has allowed us to see much more of the country.

What struck me — again — was the way in which (no pun intended) French church clocks strike. In a number of cases the hour is struck and then a few minutes later the strike is repeated. To be fair we've only traversed the northern half of the country, so can't truly confirm what happens in this way in the southern half, but, as the repeating strike seems common in the north, I guess it's the same down below: can anyone confirm? In addition, I have noticed that a bell is swung for a few minutes after the 7pm strike (or strikes) and in some cases after the 7am strikes. This swinging is almost certainly done electrically, and again the practice seems common. I am usually left wondering what comments would be made if the repeating strikes mode were to be adopted here, let alone a bell being swung at 7am and 7pm? I'm sure they would be 'interesting' — probably extremely!

I have also noticed that almost all French church clocks are, within a very reasonable number of seconds, correct. This seems to contrast very sharply with what happens here, where in many cases our clocks struggle to be within 2 minutes of correct time. Some of our clocks are way out and seem to stay that way. Some have just stopped; and some stay that way, too!

As we all know, the French (along with the rest of mainland Europe) don't ring bells like we do. To be honest this can be a right clatter to English-style ringers' ears, and one has to wonder why they don't do it in the clever way we do. But then they have church clocks that strike twice and daily tolling bells. All down to 'Vive la difference' no doubt!

There is one continental mode of sounding bells that has percolated to these shores and beyond. That is the carillon.

Before anyone pipes up to say their church has a carillon that acts on the ring of bells there, I have to say the use of the term carillon in such an instance is a travesty of the true meaning of the word. We just have what may be more-accurately described as outsize musical boxes that activate hammers to strike the sound bows at the side when the bells are down. My predecessor at the Bell Tower, Geoff Hemming (Gerald's father) used to call the 'carillon' there the Juke Box! How did 'carillon' get used for such a way? Dunno, but it's quite incorrect.

OK, so what's a real carillon? It's rather similar to a piano with bells (hung 'dead') instead of strings. In a piano, the keys operate hammers that strike the strings, and in a carillon, the keys operate hammers that strike the bells. As a piano, too, there are bells that occupy the same notes in a piano, ie all the basic notes, plus all sharps and flats: a chromatic scale, rather than, as ring of bells, a diatonic scale. There are 13 notes (or 12 intervals) in a chromatic octave (for example, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C). An adjoining chromatic octave adds 12 notes.

The keyboard of a carillon is laid out like a piano, with the sharps (the black keys on a piano) laid out separately to the main notes. There are foot pedals, too, as in an organ layout. The biggest bell is referred to as the bass bell, and the whole playing assembly is called a clavier. However, the carillon keys are unlike a piano keyboard. They are wooden pegs that protrude from the clavier, and are struck by the sides of the carillonneur's fists, although he can play two keys with one hand using some fingers. The foot pedals are connected to the biggest bells.

The carillon tower, Bergues, Northern France.
(The bells are visible under the cupola)

The continentals (more particularly the Low Countries: Holland, Belgium and Northern France) have had carillons for over 300 years. Their carillons contain up to 67 bells, with bass bells varying between 10cwt and 5 tons. We have a few over here (about 20). The biggest numerically are Aberdeen and Bournville, both with 48 bells (basses 90cwt and 64cwt respectively). Then comes Loughborough War Memorial and St Helen's, Merseyside with 47 (basses 82cwt and 84cwt respectively). The minimum number of bells to form a proper carillon is 23. The United States caught on to carillons early last century and, as expected, have some of the largest numerically (77 bells at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan) and the largest in weight (Riverside, New York, 74 bells with a mighty 18 ton bass). Chicago has a carillon only slightly smaller and lighter than New York's (72, 17 ton bass). This is only a small selection of the major carillons around he world. Anyone particularly interested in knowing where carillons are situated in the world and how many bells they have can access the internet for this information. Why has the UK so few? Probably because we have, and have had for over 400 years, our strong change ringing tradition.

OK, so why did I mention carillons? Helen and I parked up at a place called Bergues, which is a few miles inland from Dunkirk. We hadn't been there before. It is a very pretty, ancient, fortified town and well-worth visiting. In the Market Square stands a magnificent tower, which, it was plain to see, contained a carillon of some sort. The clock struck some very musical quarters on the bells, so it could just have been a rather elaborate electrically-operated chime.

Next day Helen and I went to the market to buy cheese, after which we went for a cup of coffee. Then the bells started playing tunes. 'Hah!' I thought, 'this doesn't sound like electronic playing, because there's some expression to the music. Perhaps it's a real carillon!' Then Helen saw some people walking round the parapet below the bells. 'Ah, the tower could be open. Let's see.' Further investigation revealed it was, so we paid a very reasonable 4 euros to ascend.

It was a long climb, but at the top was a carillonneur sitting in an enclosed hut under the bells, banging away on the clavier.

Jacques Martell, the Bergues carillonneur, at the clavier.

I waited until he'd finished a piece and then gave a handclap of congratulation. He came out to thank me, but as he did I pointed to the bell motif on my ringing sweatshirt (sorry, it was my Worcs & Dists one, not FSG). That did it; he was very welcoming and immediately invited us into his den. Helen's French, although rusty at the beginning of our holiday, had developed well by then, so she acted as the interpreter. Jacques Martell, the carillonneur, asked whether I played, but I indicated I was 'Anglais' and pulled bells. Jacques understood, as he said he's had a go at ringing in Birmingham a few years previously — and said it seemed dangerous! He told me the carillon had 50 bells, with a bass bell of 2½ tons. The 45 smallest bells had been cast by Paccard of Annecy (33 In 1961 and the remainder in 1973). The 2 largest had been cast in 1628 by Blampain of St Omer and the remaining 3 were cast by Crouzet-Hildebrand of Paris in 1880. He was very kind and again offered me a go on the carillon, but I politely declined his offer! I asked Jacques whether I could film him playing. He was quite happy — and played 'Amazing Grace' for us. I have an excellent recording of this if anyone is interested to see how a real carillon works (the photo above of Jacques playing is a still from it).

Please remember: our churches don't have carillons: just 'carillons' (or even Juke Boxes!).


(It may be of interest to know that the carillon tower in Bergues was destroyed in WW1 and rebuilt afterwards. It was destroyed in WW2 — and rebuilt yet again. It's a beautiful and very imposing structure: superb brickwork. Hats off to the French for this, and for taking similar action on many other similar structures destroyed in this way. Belgium, too: for example, Ypres is a glory rebuilt from near total destruction after WW1.)