In East Anglia you can hardly move for beautiful medieval churches, built from the proceeds of the wool trade, but St Mary’s, East Bergholt, Suffolk has a unique claim to fame.
Dated 1350-1550, it’s a fine late-Perpendicular rebuilding in flintwork of an earlier church, containing – among much else – a priest’s room above the south porch, an Easter sepulchre in the chancel, a carved oak screen and a parish chest, c1400, hollowed out of a tree-trunk. The church is 120 feet long and 56 feet wide. The interior was sketched by East Bergholt’s most celebrated son, the painter John Constable (1776-1837), whose parents are buried here.
At the west end, the beginnings of an elaborate tower stand unfinished since the Reformation. There is a story that the funds to complete it, donated by Ipswich-born Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), were purloined by Henry VIII. It’s more likely that at the Reformation from the 1530s onwards, work paused, as it did at Bath Abbey and what became Bristol Cathedral, but never restarted.
As a result, the five bells intended for the tower were housed in a timber bell-cage where they remain.
For the best part of five hundred years, the bells have been rung at ground level, swung by hand, the heaviest ring of five in England – 4¼ tons in total, of which the tenor weighs 1ton 6cwt 0qr 8lb, comparable to the weight of a small car.
Change-ringing with a ring of five is practical, though repetitive. The bells rest in an upward position, and are set in motion by a ringer grasping the headstock. There are no wheels or ropes.
The ringers of the lightest four bells stand outside and lean into the frame to ring. The tenor is rung from an uncomfortable, noisy position in the middle of the cage.
There’s detailed information about the bell cage, with audio and video recordings, at https://eastbergholt-bells.org.uk, which includes details of ringing times.
This 2017 Daily Mail article provides further background and images: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4872200/Dangerous-four-tonne-church-bells-rung-HAND.html.