On a narrow street in Loughborough, surrounded by a much more modern housing estate, sits an imposing collection of mid 19th-century red-brick buildings. This is the John Taylor & Co bell foundry and museum – the only major bell foundry left in the UK.
Taylor & Co has made some of the most famous bells in the world, as this charming documentary explores. Its best-known creation (and certainly the biggest) is St Paul’s Cathedral’s Great Paul. We hear from Oliver Caroe, an architect who has the rather wonderful job title of “surveyor of the fabric”, who says John Taylor took on the commission “reluctantly” in the late 1800s. “He was somewhere between an absolutely maverick chancer and a brilliant, brilliant entrepreneur,” Caroe says.
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Taylor had to invest a huge amount of money in the bell, using 20 tonnes of metal to cast it (the finished product weighs 17 tonnes, is nine feet in diameter, and bears the inscription “Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel”) – all before knowing how he would lift it, let alone transport it from Loughborough to London and install it in the cathedral. It was an “Odyssean journey”, involving two steam-driven traction engines and lasting 11 days, with some people “chasing him out of town” for the damage the bell did to local roads. To get the bell through the door of the cathedral, a huge ramp was greased with whale oil.
Tony Platt, the recording engineer on AC/DC’s Back in Black, came to Taylor’s foundry in 1980 to record the bell that featured on the band’s song “Hells Bells”. Gregg Praetorius, “a classic rocker at heart” who produced live shows at the time, recalls the same bell was so heavy it fell through the stage at an AC/DC gig in Long Island.
We hear from several members of today’s foundry: Anthony Stone, who has been foreman for 29 years, and who casts the bells; bell tuner Girdhar Vadukar; and archivist George Dawson – all of whom are passionate about the foundry’s history and continued presence in Britain. This is the kind of quietly curious, open-hearted show BBC radio does best.
Bells That Still Can Ring
BBC Radio 4, 8 December, 11.30am
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince