There was once a campanologist who, on being appointed Librarian of the Diocesan Guild to which he belonged, determined to make a full and comprehensive record of all the peal-boards, Ringers’ Rules, framed notices about bells and other items which adorned the walls of the ringing chambers of all the member towers.
The examination of these interesting signs demanded a quite considerable expenditure of time, and the necessary photographs of each board, notice, and other example of the signwriter’s and calligrapher’s art, proved costly in a more material sense.
Mr Lindsay was a keen, but by no means a professional, photographer: a few of his pictures of peal-boards turned, by some inexplicable alchemy, into pictures of whitewashed stone walls, and even, in one memorable frame, into a representation of Mr Lindsay’s own feet, encased in a pair of stout brown brogues.
However, by dint of perseverance and determined duplication of every single picture, he slowly but surely built up his collection.
As he journeyed farther afield, Mr Lindsay was occasionally obliged to stay away from home for a night or so. Since he was careful to arrange his trips to coincide with practice nights at these far-flung towers, he was usually assured of a welcome and a convivial evening at some local pub.
In the case of the Abbey Church at Norchester, Mr Lindsay was invited by Mr Williamson, the tower captain, to take advantage of the latter’s spare bedroom. Brushing aside any suggestion of payment, Williamson generously offered hospitality for as long as Mr Lindsay would like.
The Abbey, which Mr Lindsay had not previously visited, was a great, grey-gold, mostly Norman pile shouldering over the town in the manner of the monster in Kipling’s illustration to The Butterfly that Stamped. The district in which it stood was known locally by the curious name of Edinburgh Well: Mr Lindsay imagined this to be a corruption of Eadburga’s Well, she being the principal saint honoured at Norchester (although the true dedication seemed to be the Virgin, St George, and St Eadburga. The saint, it appeared, had been Abbess there while the town was under siege in the seventh century AD. No water was to be had, until, the tale said, Eadburga had driven a staff into the ground, at which fresh water had burst forth).
The Abbey’s huge tower, square as a fortress, was adorned by Victorian-looking pinnacles, which Mr Lindsay thought would be better away. Furthermore, the climb up to the ringing chamber was one of the most exhausting and vertiginous which Mr Lindsay could remember. He especially disliked narrow passageways between staircases which afforded dizzying drops onto the floors of churches. Those of Norchester did not even boast any kind of railing between the dubious safety of the pillars bordering their narrow cloister.
Mr Williamson was an elderly, if robust — he had to be, to make that climb on a regular basis — ringer of the old school which knows intimately the history of each man whose name appears on the peal-boards, and that man’s family history back to the time of the Norman conquest. Mr Lindsay could not have wished for a more knowledgeable guide, though he might have wished for a less garrulous one — for when Mr Williamson regained his breath (a matter of minutes after their entry) he immediately began to give his visitor the benefit of his own accumulated years.
“Now the clock bell’s the oldest in the county, she dates from about 1280, sort of a flowerpot shape she is, you’ll see, not like proper bells. For all they’re a motley selection, we like the sound of our old ten. If you’ll just come over here and give this notice a glance, you’ll see just how mongrel they are; but when you ring, you’ll find they go well: I pride myself on those bells, for all they’re on plain bearings and the tenor’s 32 hundredweight, you’ll not find an easier ring of ten in the country. Now, if you’ll be so good—”
Mr Lindsay allowed his attention to be drawn to a framed list of the bells and their founders, such as most towers display. The oldest bell, he saw, dated from 1630: this was the seventh; the most recent additions were the two trebles which were dated 1921.
“Now do you see this photograft here?” went on Mr Williamson, relentlessly. “That’s our two trebles from Gillett and Johnston, and there’s myself at age eleven or thereabouts. This here’s my father, Chief Verger he was then, who rang four peals including the first on the ten in 1926 — there’s the board next the window, Stedman Caters as you see, my old dad was a devil for Stedman’s principle, he held there wasn’t nothing else really worth the ringing, though he would grudge a bit of Plain Bob or Grandsire had we learners in the tower; I dare swear there was never a single thing else rung in this tower before the old man died. Now did you want to take a pitcher of that board? — ’cause if you do, I recommend we pull the tenor box over there so’s you’ll be up on a level with it.”
“Well, that would be quite useful,” Mr Lindsay found himself saying, and, moments later, found himself standing on the aforementioned box and peering at the heavy black peal-board through the viewfinder of his camera. He took a photograph both with and without flash-lighting, just in case.
After this, his gaze strayed to the adjacent window embrasure. The walls of the massive tower, not surprisingly, looked to be well over six feet thick; and, as the Abbey was situated in the highest part of Norchester, the windows afforded fine views over the town and the surrounding countryside.
Mr Williamson, appearing by his shoulder, startled him by bursting into speech once more. “Some folk say Romsey Abbey’s a finer church; Norchester’s bigger, and older, and we’ve more and better bells!”
“That would be the chapter-house, would it?” asked Mr Lindsay, indicating a demi-ruin, picturesquely ivy-cloaked.
“You’re right; and if you’ll look to the left — no, farther: you’re over the transept there; there, do you see?”
“What is it I’m looking at?” Mr Lindsay enquired, perceiving what might have been a smaller ivied ruin, just within the churchyard.
“Well, that’s the Well — as they say,” rejoined Mr Williamson. “You know the legend? No? They say as long as that Well lies within hallowed ground, it’ll go on giving fresh water. Edinburgh Well, they call it. Or Ada-burga’s Well.” (Mr Williamson’s pronunciation of the saint’s name defies exact phonetic reproduction.)
“The legend must be taken seriously, then,” Mr Lindsay observed, noting that the churchyard wall bulged out in a sort of D-shape in order to enclose the Well.
“As to that, if you’ve half an hour to spare, I could tell you a tale.”
“Of course I should like to hear it immensely.”
“All right, then; now if you won’t mind stopping here a moment while I go up into the clock-chamber and give her a wind, then we’ll have time for a bite of tea before coming back for the practice.”
Mr Lindsay took a few more photographs — sufficient to satisfy even himself — and was examining a chalked line on a blackboard when a series of thumps and bumps announced the reappearance of Mr Williamson.
“What method’s this?” Mr Lindsay asked.” I don’t seem to recognise it — the frontwork looks peculiar, unless someone’s been fooling around, and I can’t seem to work out what the treble’s supposed to do.”
“Ah! That’s because she rings the method. It’s a principle, like Stedman. That’s our own row of Changes, as old Bill Davis used to call it — St Ada-burga Caters.” (Mr Lindsay bit his tongue to restrain himself from making a rejoinder on the lines of ‘Does she, by Jove?’) “Well, now, I don’t hold with my old dad, what wouldn’t ring nothing but Stedman, but I do like the sound of an odd-bell peal, with the note of the tenor behind like the beating of a heart, steady and sure. It’s more like the sea when you hear the tenor turned in: you never know where she’s going to turn up next; but then, these days it’s all surprise this and surprise that and nine-and- ninety spliced, and where’s the sense in that, I ask you? But there it is, I suppose everyone’s got their opinions.”
The discussion of the peculiar traits of some ringers — most precisely, their predilection for ringing so many methods to a peal that they could not possibly know each one in its entirety — occupied Mr Williamson almost up to the moment when he and Mr Lindsay re-entered the former’s house. We find them settled in the back room some short time afterwards, partaking of mahogany-coloured tea and slabs of fruit cake.
Mr Lindsay committed the substance of Williamson’s story to paper that same evening, but we shall probably find it expedient to condense his record to some extent.
Mr Williamson was born, it appeared, in the year 1910. His father and grandfather had both been involved with the Abbey, the latter as a chorister; the youngest Williamson being tone-deaf, he was taken to the belfry instead and taught to ring at an early age by his father.
After the Great War (Mr Williamson was pedantic in his terminology, although he had done more for the town during the Second World War, as air-raid warden and unofficial guardian of the church) — Norchester, an unassuming market town, enjoyed an upsurge in prosperity. Through the late twenties and early thirties an enormous amount of new housing was erected, a matter of concern to the more old-fashioned or Luddite among the townsfolk.
Mr Williamson thought he himself would have been around nineteen at the time about which he spoke. At this time, representations were made to the church authorities with a view to acquiring some of the land surrounding the Abbey. The intention, apparently, was to create something on the lines of a cathedral close around the church, leaving the graveyard severely curtailed and incorporating the ruins of the chapter house, the cloister pavement — and the Well.
In those days, apparently, water authorities notwithstanding, the Well was still an important source of drinking water for the upper part of the town; and sufficient of its users took the old story seriously enough to make their own representations to try and keep the Well, at least, within church land.
Mammon, however, proved in this case to have a stronger influence than St Eadburga, and these pleas fell upon deaf ears. Work went on apace: Mr Williamson pointed out a small row of thirties “cottages” which had been among the first houses to be built in the Edinburgh Well area. (With predictable insensitivity these dwellings had been christened “Caledonia Close”. Several decades of weathering and the growth of numerous trees had served to make them quite attractive in the late summer sunshine.)
It was around this time that a fairly severe drought began to affect the south of England. Always sensible of any supernatural connotations, the great British public in the shape of the populace of Norchester (or at least, what might be termed the pro-Well faction) tapped its collective nose and made pronouncements as to its being a “judgement” on disregarding legends of saints and such-like. The season was undoubtedly a very trying one. Many of the good people of Norchester, Williamson maintained, still remembered the hateful nightmares which visited them at that time: visions of indistinct shapes which crawled with horrid deliberation and which glistened dully where the moonlight caught them. Williamson waxed so descriptive in his account that Mr Lindsay was convinced the tower-captain had not escaped the dreams.
“Of course it got terribly hot up in the ringing-chamber those nights,” Mr Williamson went on. “We didn’t have no electric fans neither, and even with all the windows open, well, if there’s not a breath of wind to stir the air, there’s not much a man can do about it. Anyway one practice night I was sitting out of a particular bit of ringing and I got to looking out of the window — the same one what you was looking out of earlier — when I thought I saw something odd about the Well. Now you know the way the heat-haze comes up off the roads — like the air’s disturbed? Well, thought I, that’s what it must be, a heat-haze; but if so, it was a devilish queer one, and al around the Well for a matter of a yard or so was distorted, as if I was looking through bull’s-eye glass, and shimmering; and for all I was so far away with my old dad yelling bob and single over the noise of the bells, I thought I heard like a buzzing noise coming from that shivering. And all of a sudden I didn’t want to look any more, and I came over shaken, and had to get down from the window.
“Well, the next thing was this. I’d got to wondering about that queer heat-haze around the Well, and of course I’d heard what folk was saying and I was thinking there was something in it; though what struck me as odd was the unpleasantness of it all: and why should one of the Almighty’s saints go around frightening people in such a way? Anyway, to cut the story short, me and another of the younger ringers, we decided to go and have a proper look at the Well; a proper look, as you can imagine, not meaning just staring at the stones and going away again, if you take my meaning.
“However, we’d got no farther than within about a yard of the Well when both of us got the shivers. I can’t speak for Reece, but I felt all the hairs on my arms and up the back of my neck prickling as if they was standing on end.
“‘Here, Williamson,’ says Reece, ‘can a well be full of static electricity?’ ‘Don’t talk rot,’ I says, ‘it must be atmospherics, or something.’ And we stood there a couple of minutes gathering courage. Then Reece made a sort of lurch towards the Well, as if he’d just got enough pluck to make that one move, but if he stopped he’d freeze — you know the feeling — and he was down inside the Well before you could say knife, with just his head and shoulders poking out. So I got a bit ashamed-like and took a couple of steps closer, and it was as well for Reece that I did, because when I looked at him again, he’d got an odd expression on, and I don’t think I ever saw anyone so white in the face.
“‘I say, Williamson,’ he says, in a sort of croaking voice, ‘someone’s got hold of my foot.’ ‘Give me your hand,’ I says, though I was near terrified out of my wits by that time, and I held out my hand. ‘No,’ he says, ‘I dursen’t let go,’ so I got hold of him by the shoulders and gave him a great pull. And for an instant it was like something was pulling back, then he came out like a cork from a bottle and the two of us landed in a heap beside the Well. We took to our heels just as quick as ever we could; and when we’d calmed down a bit I had a look at Reece’s boots, and it was just as if something had chewed the heel off one of them in one big bite.”
After this Williamson gave the Well a wide berth, but it appeared that something, at least, had not gone unnoticed, because from time to time a group of men would gather some little distance from it and appear to be deep in discussion — Church officials and property developers alike. At other times no-one would even approach the Well, and water was in very short supply.
Matters appeared to come to a head not many days later. The Abbey band had been ringing for a wedding — call-changes on the back eight being all the depleted ringers could manage, with only the two Williamsons and two others capable of method-ringing: a great many residents had taken to leaving the town for weekends in an endeavour to find somewhere cooler.
“We got through somehow, and then my dad and Mr Henshaw — he was tower captain then — had to go up the belfry for some reason; so I waited down in the ringing-chamber, and Reece stayed to keep me company. We sat and looked out of the window, not talking very much.
“Next thing was, I see a group of men, including the vicar and the curate, and a couple of men with crows, and Mr Spencer the carpenter, come across to the Well, and they stopped just about a yard from it, just the way Reece and I had done. Well, I nudged Reece with my foot, and he nodded and said ‘Sh!’ a bit curt-like.
“Now sometimes you can hear bits and pieces of what folk are saying from up there; but I’ve never been able to explain how I managed to hear all the conversation of those men who’d come to cap the Well. And if you asked Reece, he’d say the same: we heard every word.
“So anyway, there they stood for a while, and then I heard the Vicar say, ‘Well, I’ve no time to waste; if you think it’ll satisfy Norchester people, I’ll allow you to do it; but I must say I never expected a practical man like yourself to pander to such superstitious nonsense. Of course I’d prefer to keep the Well Church property: historically it’s part of the Abbey; but needs must, Mr Spencer, needs must.’ ‘Aye,’ says Spencer, ‘and you know the rest of that proverb as well as what I do.’
“Meantime the curate had been peering at the Well, and now he ups and says ‘I think you can get a good purchase about here, Potter’ — this to one of the workmen — ‘if you sort of prise it out.’ So the man come round, and put his bar in, and just at that moment there was a fearful crack and he dropped the crow as if he’d been stung; and then there was something rose up out of the Well like a piece of darkness, and I heard the Vicar say ‘Good God!’ And then they all took to the heels.
“What was it like? Well, I couldn’t really see it properly, even in the sunlight: there was still that queer heat-haze around; but it was more like a toad than anything else. But no-one ever see a toad that big. I think Reece could see better than I could; though he never spoke about it but the once, and what he said was that it had such a hungry look on its features —though it hadn’t seemed to him to have anything you could actually call a face — that he thought it would be waiting for him when his time came, and he hoped he’d have been a good enough Christian that someone else would intervene for him.
“Well, that’s the tale of the Well, Mr Lindsay; as you saw, it still stands on hallowed ground; and the water from it is as pure and sweet as any you’ll find the length and breadth of the country. But you can testify to that: you’ve been drinking tea made with it this past hour.”
Mr Lindsay, out of curiosity, took several photographs of the Well. Perhaps he had some idea that inexplicable amphibian shadows, invisible to the human eye, would show up on photographic emulsion; if so, he was disappointed.
© Chico Kidd 1987
First published in Ghosts & Scholars 12 (1990)
Reprinted in Summoning Knells (Ash-Tree Press, 2000)