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David Toop

Died Away Upon the Ear

David Toop


A small bell is found near Ambleside within the site of a Roman fort. Again in Ambleside but 101 years later, this bell is gently activated with a number of light implements – the blunt end of a pencil, a painting brush, the flat edge of a scalpel blade. A recording is made, upon which operations of a temporal nature are performed.


Bells served many functions in ancient Rome. Plutarch wrote of an ingenious military device used by Brutus during his siege of Xanthus: nets were laid deep under the river that ran past the city. When Xanthians tried to swim to freedom they were entangled, their presence betrayed by the sound of small bells attached to the uppermost nets. “It is not beyond the realm of possibility,” notes The Collector’s Book of Bells, “for collectors to feel that their tiny archaeological bells from Roman ruins might have been used for some such clever military defense as this.”

            Inevitably, given their versatility as cultural artifacts central to marking time, place and occasion, magical and military defenses, animal husbandry, decoration and the pursuit of pleasure and play, an ancient bell will invite such speculation. In The Bells of England, J.J. Raven wrote, for example, of the Roman Nola – “a little bell hung about a dog’s neck, or bird’s legs, so such a one as is hung at a horse’s breast or ear.”  The Romans left Ambleside in the 4th century, yet the small copper alloy bell now held within the Armitt Gallery collection was not found until the beginning of the 20th century. For an object of such antiquity, buried under the ground for so long, it sounds, as they say, as clear as a bell. This is the remarkable property of bells. Musical instruments age well only up to a point. The materials of their construction warp, rot, shrink, decay, disappear or become too fragile for their intended use. They are also dependent on playing techniques that can change dramatically over time. A bell, on the other hand, is simply struck or rattled, and if the metal has not rusted or cracked then what we hear is a fair approximation of what would have been heard more than 1600 years ago. Bells are the embodiment of time, their sound so pervasive as to saturate living space with their presence. In his symbolist novel, Bruges-la-Morte, Georges Rodenbach wrote of bells sounding out “the death of hours”, a sound that influenced the colour of the air or itself seemed blackish turning to grey as its reverberation “moves along in sluggish, bobbing waves over the waters of the canals.”

            For Rodenbach, the bell is like a living creature, mysterious and disturbing for its capacity to reach out and occupy remote space. This quality of sound, an intangibility extending from the object of its source to describe a complex geography of place, is intrinsic to its capacity to both harm and charm. William Wordsworth wrote about this time and again. The acuity of his listening is evident from vivid evocations of echoes, noises in silence, strange sounds of low breathing, fugitive sounds – “Nun’s faint sob of holy fear” – and those subtle complexities that give atmosphere to place in one specific moment – “. . . the bleak music of that old stone wall, The noise of wood and water . . .” or the “hubbub wild” heard in Paris through his “stranger’s ears”.

The Well -Dove Cottage

In The Prelude he compared the human mind to music, in both a “dark invisible workmanship that reconciles discordant elements, and makes them move in one society.” Cheek pressed to a mossy stone he listened to subterranean waters as if their murmuring echoed the resonation of his own unconscious. “He used rock to orchestrate the sounds of water,” say the authors of Wordsworth’s Gardens. “He was accustomed to using the flow of water, among other sources of natural music, to balance with the ear what he referred to in the Prelude as the domination of the eye.” An example of this urge to orchestrate can be seen in Herbert Bell’s photograph of around 1910, The Well – Dove Cottage garden, which could be mistaken for a pond in a Kyoto garden. The water continues to pour and we might imagine its sound as a murmur unchanged from the early 19th century but as Heraclitus of Ephesus famously wrote: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” 

            One fascination of an antique bell is that the object is reasonably intact yet its sound has died. As I have said above, we can reclaim it from history by striking the bell and this in itself is something of a miracle but the original sound, like all sounds existing before the age of audio recording, is lost as an actual (though not imaginative) experience. This is true of all sounds, despite the inescapable persistence of certain noise events in contemporary life, and this characteristic is where Gabriel Josipovici finds the answer to a question raised by Wordworth. “Is there are a way of interacting with nature which is not destructive?” Josipovici asks, and provides the answer with that section from The Prelude in which Wordsworth describes a boy mimicking the hooting of owls through cupped hands. He calls out to the silence of the owls and they respond to his call, the exchange falling away into a deep silence into which rushes another form of echoing, “to a complete incorporation of the landscape into the boy and the boy into the landscape.”

Grasmere by James Jennings

            Perusing the Armitt Collection archive I thought of this echoing – voices flung back as shadows, as Wordsworth put it - on discovering a photograph of Grasmere, taken by James Jennings in the 1940’s. Soft reflections of the landscape are mirrored by the lake in eerie symmetry. To me, a digital composer, the image immediately suggested those intriguing shapes thrown up as horizontal wave forms in computer audio files, Rorschach-like visual approximations of sound that enable digital editing. But I was also reminded of something I had read the year before, during a holiday in the Lake District, a tantalizingly vague reference to the earliest explorers of the Lakes, a claim that they fired cannon across the waters in order to enjoy the echoes.

            Three sources in the Armitt Library confirmed this. W. Hutchinson, a Barnard Castle solicitor, published a detailed account of this practice in An Excursion to the Lakes in 1773 and 1774. A barge fitted with six brass cannon mounted on swivels, sailed to the optimum spot on Ullswater where it discharged one round. “The report was echoed from the opposite rocks,” he wrote, “where the reverberation seemed to roll from cliff to cliff, and return through every cave and valley; till the decreasing tumult gradually died away upon the ear.”

            Two French horns then serenaded Richardson’s party with a more aetherial concert of echoes – “All this vast theatre was possessed by innumerable aerial being, who breathed celestial harmonies” – and then, as they finished their lunch, multiple guns were discharged, tipping his perception of the landscape from sublimity into a typically Romantic excess of terror: “For on every hand, the sounds were reverberated and returned from side to side, so as to give the semblance of that confusion and horrid uproar, which the falling of these stupendous rocks would occasion, if by some internal combustion they were rent to pieces, and hurled into the lake.”

In the previous year William Gilpin, prebedary of Salisbury, had been entertained with French horns at Ullswater and also heard Windemere’s echo and the cannon of Ullswater. Like Hutchinson, he felt overwhelmed by apocalypse when all the cannon were fired in succession. “Such a variety of awful sounds,” he wrote, “mixing, and commixing, and at the same moment heard from all sides, have a wonderful effect on the mind; as if the very foundations of every rock on the lake were giving way; and the whole scene from some strange convulsion, were falling into general ruin.”

            According to Norman Nicholson in The Lakers, The King’s Arms at Patterdale provided the boat and a small cannon, discharged for what Nicholson describes as trifling expense, though two cannon for four shillings and one for half a crown seems quite pricey for the 18th century. He gives short shrift to these dabblers in shock and awe: “Moreover, his echoes give us an analogy for the Picturesque at this stage,” Nicholson writes. “To him, to his contemporaries, the landscape was chiefly a sounding board. They sailed into the middle of the lake, fired off the guns of their own ego, and waited, patiently yet excitedly, to hear the echoes return to them. The world itself did not matter – what concerned them was the sound of their own voices.”

Green - Yewbarrow from Bowderdale 1815

     To imagine the contemporary context of these forays into audio-tourism (remarkable in themselves for anticipating similar, if more scientifically monitored investigations into echoes by Irish physicist John Tyndall a century later) we might look at William Green’s Yewbarrow from Bowderdale, the print of an etching published in 1815. Green transforms the Lake District into lush brooding exoticism, closer perhaps to a fictional Bolivian or Brazilian lost plateau than the northwest of England.

            Dramatic as this appears to the eye, it places the observer outside a picturesque scene made uncanny by an accumulation of effects, all of which are suggestive of mystery, inaccessibility and remoteness. Sounding the environment, invasive as it was, may have originated in rhetoric and sermon, a colonizing blast from the gunboat, but through the violent return of its echoes a chain of events was unleashed whereby the listening point of the observer was tossed about in complex immersive patterns descriptive of geography, geology and atmospheric circumstances. All of these were heard as a function of time, a particular density of time through which one brief moment – the explosion (or the chime of a bell) - was repeated and fragmented, returning multiple measurements of spatial and reflective conditions as history revisited in unpredictable forms.


Springer, L. Elsinore, The Collector’s Book of Bells, New York, 1972.

Raven, J.J., The Bells of England, 1906.

Rodenbach, Georges, Bruges-la-Morte, Sawtry, 2007.

Wordsworth, William, The Major Works, Oxford, 1984.

Buchanan, Carol & Buchanan, Richard, Wordsworth’s Gardens, Lubbock, 2001.

Josipovici, Gabriel, What Ever Happened To Modernism?, New Haven and London, 2010.

Hutchinson, W., An Excursion to the Lakes in Westmoreland and Cumberland with a Tour through part of the Northern Counties, In the years 1773 and 1774, London, 1776.

Gilpin, W., Observations on Several Parts of England, particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty made in the year 1772, London, 1808.

Nicholson, Norman, The Lakers, 1955.