Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday 24 July 2015

A reluctance to be tolled

This is a story that will strike a chord - or ring a bell - with anyone who has had a reasonable proposal shot down in flames at a meeting.

One Biff Vernon set out recently to pitch an 'unusual piece of public art' to East Lindsey District Council Planning Committee in Lincolnshire:
The £30,000-plus project would have accommodated within an oak frame a brass bell that would have chimed (at various pitches) according to the movements and heights of the tide.
The so-called tide-and-time bell [sic] would have been the sixth in a series of 12 proposed for British coastal locations, with five already having been installed.
The five existing bells are in Appledore, the Isle of Lewis, London, Aberdyfi and Anglesey, with others planned for Orford Ness and Aberdeen. Mr Vernon explained that the proposed bell, designed by Devon artist Marcus Vergette, would provide a 'talking point' and potentially attract tourists to the beach at Anderby Creek, a windswept coastal hamlet north of Skegness.

Personally, I'm not sure I would make a special trip from outside the area, but there's no denying that the bells are an elegant and intriguing concept, a corrosion-resistant doubly-flaring hollow tube, cast using traditional bell-making techniques, containing a clapper activated by waves as the tide rises.

The Council Planning Committee, it seems, were not so impressed.
...councillors refused the application, noting ‘noise pollution’ objections from villagers and further claiming the installation would be a threat to swimmers and marine craft users.
Since the bells are designed to be covered at high tide, that second point does make some sense, although it is certainly not an insurmountable problem and has clearly been successfully tackled at the other sites. The Councillors, however, had not yet finished with Mr Vernon:
Coun Jim Swanson described the idea as ‘a folly’...
...and committee chairman Coun Neil Cooper said oak was inappropriate because it ‘rots like hell’ after contact with water - which was why elm, when available, was used in harbour construction. 
Not surprisingly, after this all-too-public mauling, the local newspaper describes Mr Vernon as 'crestfallen'. In his own account, he speculates that he might have been 'caught up in some internal feud' - a highly plausible explanation to anyone who has observed the collateral damage inflicted by turf wars in such public bodies as NHS trusts and Housing Benefit offices.

I'm not so sure, though. You see, back when the project was in its infancy, it seems to have been intended primarily as a celebration of British tradition, maritime heritage and craftsmanship. The matter of climate change was mentioned by the bell's creator almost as an afterthought:
"Being an island, we have a close relationship with the sea and this is a positive way of looking at our relationship with the sea and the environment." 
The bell is a piece of art, but there could be a practical element as well: "If the bell starts ringing more and more, it's a sign of rising tide levels and global warming. In which case it would be a warning bell."
Over the intervening years, however, the climate change aspect appears to have been seized on and promoted by other agencies until it has become a defining element:
The Time and Tide Bell Project was a finalist for the Climate Change Awards 2011, Best Artistic Response to climate Change.
"Devon artist Marcus Vergette is ringing out a poignant warning on climate change with a permanent installation of 12 giant bells at high tide points around the UK. Rung by the waves, Vergette's seven foot-high bronze bells will strike more often as climate change raises sea levels, and their pitch changes as they become submerged."
Add in the fact that Mr Vernon is known to be a Green Party member and environmental blogger and you have a combination likely to trigger a reflex reaction in the sort of people who don't like to feel they are on the receiving end of a sermon or being used to further someone else's political agenda.

If so, it's a great shame, since, regardless of environmental considerations, the Time and Tide Bell has much to recommend it. With a few tweaks to the design - it's not clear why the oak frame was chosen in preference to the metal or wire supports of the other bells - it could have become a noteworthy feature of Lincolnshire's coastline.

And, as Tavern regulars have doubtless already surmised, bells like these could have a valuable role to play in alerting the unwary to the action of the tide. A modified version could even be installed at locations notorious for walkers cut off by rising water - a trip through the Tavern archives could furnish a handy list - in preference to the threatened electronic warning lights and sounds.

While such an expensive project should not be charged directly to the long-suffering taxpayer - sufficient that its genesis was Arts Council funded - perhaps it would be possible, along with external grants, to encourage subscription among local residents and businesses, particularly if the bells were sited in areas where they would draw visitors and add to an area's amenities.

My own nomination for a potential site (and one where the Council might well be persuaded to chip in)? Definitely Dunwich (the real one in Suffolk, UK; sorry, H P Lovecraft fans), where the sea has engulfed the former medieval city. I haven't recorded any errant littoral pedestrians there, true, but, given local tradition, the place is surely crying out for it:
As the legend goes, if at certain tides you stand upon a bleak stretch of Dunwich beach, its possible to hear the ghostly peals of church bells tolling from beneath the waves. 


  1. Time and tide cosider no man, regardless of hue.

  2. I have encountered Biff Vernon on the internet in the past - a classic eco-loon. And surely if the sea level rises, the bell will toll less and less as it will be submerged for more of the time.

  3. Was Quasimodo able to swim? Anyhow, really Skeggy? They wouldn't hear is in the caravans because they all have the tellies on loud.

  4. Indeed, JH, as King Cnut admirably demonstrated.

    Curmudgeon, it all has me wondering just how that transition from the conditional 'If' and 'in that case it would be a warning bell' to the definite 'ringing out a poignant warning on climate change' took place and how much of a say the original creator had in it; was it a hijack by the environmental lobby or a Faustian pact, willingly entered into for the sake of publicity?

    Demetrius, Aquasimido, perhaps?

    The proposed site is some miles north and looks decidedly, well, bracing unless the weather is perfect; not much shelter anywhere around.

    Actually, I'm puzzled about the choice of a sandy beach at all; though I understand the plan is to have a bell on the east coast, I should have thought somewhere with rocks would provide better anchorage and more associated interest.

  5. You mention Devon, Macheath. Presume you're aware of the Blue Moon over Devon this week? Or is your brief just asteroids?


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