One thing you learn in writing stories is that certain objects have a mysterious and almost magnetic power that defies words. Castles, swords, rings, goblets, buried treasure—the appearance of any one of these in a story is like a radiant stone that vibrates with its own intensity. Perhaps that’s why I became Catholic, because as a storyteller I was naturally drawn to a religion that invests material things with sacramental power: holy water; crosses; bells, books, and candles.
Bell towers have fascinated me ever since I saw the movie Vertigo when I was nine or ten years old. Recently voted the greatest film of all time in the once-a-decade Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo tells the story of a retired detective (James Stewart) hired to trail a young woman (Kim Novak) who may be possessed by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor. He pursues her to an old Spanish mission, the Mission San Juan Batista, where, at the very top of the bell tower, tragedy strikes. And then strikes again.
The understated use of Hispanic and southwestern folklore in this movie slowly worked its way into my brain, taking root in dark corners. During my first couple of months at Southwestern University, ten years ago this summer, I was enchanted by the beige limestone, the rounded-arch doorways, the old chapel at the heart of campus with a door leading up to the tower, a door that was only unlocked on the rarest of occasions. I remember being struck with a sense of the history of the place.
It was there that I had the idea to write a series of children’s books, books that would draw on the cultures and legends of the Celts (my ancestors) and the Southwest (my adopted home). This summer in going back and rereading some of the folklore and mythology of England I’ve been struck by how many stories center around the ringing of bells. In the days before telephones and wireless, sometimes the cathedral bell was the only means of communication between one town and another, or between the church and those in peril on the ocean’s dark waters.
One such story from County Surrey tells of a man, Neville Audley, who was captured fighting on the wrong side during the long-ago War of the Roses. Arrested and sentenced to die when the curfew bell tolled on the next night at Chertsey Abbey, he realized that the only hope of being spared was to obtain a pardon from the king.
Neville conferred with his girlfriend, Blanche Heriot, and their mutual friend Herrick. Herrick agreed to ride towards London to seek pardon. But on the next day, with only five minutes left before the bell tolled, Herrick was seen flying towards the town from half a mile away—still too far away to save Audley’s life.
The minutes passed. The townsfolk awaited the tolling of the bell. But the bell did not ring.
Just as Herrick arrived in town, the sexton, accompanied by soldiers, went up into the tower to investigate. There they found Blanche Heriot, dashed against the bell and frame but still clinging to the clapper with a tenacity born of desperation. Luckily she had hung there just long enough to save her beloved, who was spared from death by the king’s timely pardon. The two were married shortly afterwards.
Another story with a less happy ending is told of the tenor bell of Burgh le Marsh church. The people of Burgh le Marsh once made a living off the debris of doomed ships, lighting the beacon on Marsh Hill to lure poor sailors to their deaths. Once the sailors were all drowned and the weather had calmed, the townsfolk would scramble ashore to loot the broken vessels.
As the story goes, in 1629 the Mary Rose was sailing from Leith, Scotland along the Lincolnshire coast on its way to Flanders. A storm began to gather. The wind howled and the rains beat against the ship, while the people of Burgh watched from the shore with growing excitement.
But not everyone was pleased by the buffeting of the storm-tossed ship. The elderly sexton Guymer, when he learned what was being planned, begged them not to light the beacon. No one listened.
A crowd made its way towards Marsh Hill and the beacon was lit. Captain Frohock, seeing what he mistook for a lighthouse, called out to his men that they were safe. The crew turned the ship in the direction of the light.
Back on shore, desperate to avoid the collision that was imminent, Guymer ran towards the church. Ascending to the top of the bell tower, he grabbed the rope and rang the bell with all the strength he could muster. Captain Frohock, realizing how close he was to shore and certain death, ordered the Mary Rose back to sea, away from the treacherous sands.
Enraged by the tolling of the bell, the townspeople stormed into the church. Breaking down the belfry door, they found Guymer, still clinging to the rope, his dead body swaying to and fro. His heart had burst open from exhaustion.
When Captain Frohock returned to the village a year later and learned what had happened, he bought an acre of land known as “Bell String Acre.” He ordered that rent from the land be used to buy a silken rope for the bell. It’s said that he married the sexton’s daughter.