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Page last updated at 08:22 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 09:22 UK
Ringing the dust off London's bells

The bells of St Giles
"Brickbats and Tiles" say the Bells of St Giles in the famous rhyme

A piece of music based on the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme has been recorded to mark the 150th anniversary of Big Ben.

It uses 200 bells from the 17 London churches named in the full version of the rhyme.

In many cases it was the first time the bells had been rung since World War II.

For the composition, all the bells were recorded individually before combining them in a studio.

A choir of 60, gathered from the areas of London mentioned in the song, then added a vocal accompaniment.

Composer Benjamin Till told the Today programme how the project came together.


I've always been fascinated by Oranges and Lemons. It's one of those rare songs that I don't remember learning, yet have distinct memories of reciting. Over and over again.

What I didn't realise was that there were many variants of the rhyme, most of which have been forgotten.

They speak of different churches across London and give us a wonderful snap shot of 18th Century life in the capital.

The rhyme was first published in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book in 1744 and introduced intriguing rhyming couplets like "Old father Baldpate say the slow bells of Aldgate".

Reading on, we learn about the geography of London businesses 300 years ago.

Death row

References to "pancakes and fritters", "kettles and pans" and "brick bats and tiles" tell us of bakers, coppersmiths and builders in areas around St Peter Upon Cornhill, St Anne's and St Giles, Cripplegate respectively.

There are also references to recreation: "Bulls eyes and targets" refers to daily archery practice in the fields behind St Margaret Lothbury.

The curious and spectacularly dark end lines - "Here comes the candle to light you to bed, here comes the chopper to chop off your head" - probably refer to Newgate prison, next to St Sepulchre's church (the bells of Old Bailey in the rhyme).

Recording of the bell at St Katherine Cree as it was removed for restoration
The bell at St Katherine Cree had to be recorded as it was being removed

The sound of that church's "great" tenor bell striking 9am on a Monday morning would signal the start of any hangings due to take place that week.

The prisoners on death row were visited the night before by the bell man of St Sepulchre, who would hold a candle in one hand and ring the execution bell in the other.

He would then recite a poem, which is included in the composition:

All you that in the condemned hole do lie / Prepare you for tomorrow you shall die / Examine well yourselves, in time repent, that you may not be to eternal flames be sent/ And when St Sepulchre's bell in the morning tolls. The lord above have mercy on your souls.

Still ringing

When I decided to write a piece that united all the bells from the rhyme, I was astonished that there remained at least one bell in every one of the churches referenced.

The church of St Martin Orgar, for example, though no longer standing, left its bell, which now hangs above a law firm in the church's former rectory.

London's bells brought to life

Recording the bells was something else. Some, we discovered, had not been rung since VE Day, and we clambered into many dark, dusty, dangerous belfries, and felt countless rungs of ladders and floorboards giving way under our feet.

On one occasion the bell rope snapped, and on another a clapper dropped with an almighty crash which caused a load of plaster to come down in the bell chamber below.

Sinister sounds

Sometimes we had to manually strike the bells with a rubber mallet - and at St Katherine Cree, we struck the bells as they were being lowered and taken away for restoration.

By the end of the process we'd recorded some 200 bells in 17 institutions.

I wanted the work to be tonal but what I didn't quite expect was how horribly out of tune and sinister bells can sound.

The process of pulling all the bells together in the studio was like pulling teeth.

Day after day we'd arrive and start the painstaking process of imputing individual strikes. 4000 in total. We'd manage about 1,000 each day before we started climbing up the walls.

The live performance of the composition takes place on 11 July 2009 at St Mary Le Bow Church, London.

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