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HIDDEN CORNERS: LONDON

A ringing success from way back

June 03, 2007|John Lee

WHAT

Whitechapel Bell Foundry

WHERE

32-34 Whitechapel Road,

London

WHY TAKE THE DETOUR

Step from Whitechapel Road's traffic-jammed clamor into the library-like calm of this tiny East London shop. But don't be deceived by its unassuming demeanor: This 437-year-old business fronts a bell-making operation that crafted Philadelphia's Liberty Bell and the Great Bell of Westminster, otherwise known as Big Ben.

Behind the shop, where bell ringers can pick up sheet music and shiny new hand bells, the operation's working hub is a brick-built foundry where 25 employees still cast bells using molds made of manure and goat hair. Although new techniques have emerged over the years, the foundry's methods have changed little since the 16th century -- as visitors soon discover in the small on-site museum and behind-the-scenes tour.

Big Ben, at 13 tons, is the foundry's biggest and heaviest achievement -- check out the cross-section around the doorway -- and its creations still ring out in cathedrals from Liverpool to St. Petersburg, Russia. But the Liberty Bell remains its most storied production.

The Liberty Bell, shipped to Philadelphia in 1752, was recast after cracking on its first strike. It cracked again a few decades later. The bell, which hangs now in the Liberty Bell Center, was the focus of a 1976 bicentennial stunt when "demonstrators" from the Procrastinators Society of America waved placards outside the foundry proclaiming, "What about our warranty?"

The company then said it would happily replace the bell -- if it were returned in its original packaging.

GETTING THERE

It's a short walk from the Aldgate East underground station (District and Hammersmith & City lines). Call 011-44-20-7247-2599, or go to www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk. The free museum is open 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; tours offered select Saturdays for $16 per person.

-- John Lee

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