The Rostherne Bell
When the bells were being raised to be hung in the tower of Rostherne Church, one of the bells fell to the ground and rolled to the edge of the mere. It was recovered and lifted back up the tower, only to fall down again. When this happened a third time one of the workmen cursed in frustration; the bell immediately rolled into the mere, crushing the blasphemous man on its way, this time to remain at the bottom of the mere.
Since then, on the morning of every Easter Day, a mermaid appears in the mere, having swum up a subterranean channel from the Irish Sea, and rings the bell while singing sweetly.
I instance Mere Mere and Rostherne Mere, particularly the latter, with Rostherne Church in the distance; it is also the deepest of the Meres, and had at one time the reputation of being unfathomable, but the lines of the late Bishop Stanley and Captain Cotton found a bottom at
“Some twenty fathom deep.”
This Mere is sometimes affected by a high tide, the river running back into the lake instead of out of it, and, under these circumstances, sparlings have been caught in it. There is a tradition that one of the bells of Rostherne Church, having been misplaced, rolled down the hill towards the Mere, but with some difficulty was restored to its position; but one of the labourers beginning to swear at it, the bell a second time rushed down the crag, and disappeared in the depths!
In concluding his paper, Mr. Morris gave some of the legends regarding the “Bells of Cheshire,” the first mentioned being that of Rostherne, one of the bells being supposed to have fallen into the mere, having thrice broken from the hoisting ropes ; being very deep in that part, the bell was still believed to be there, and as the mere is vulgarly considered to have an underground communication with the river Mersey, the legend goes on to say that at Easter a mermaid comes up this tunnel, takes up the bell, and rings it over the dark waters, then seats herself upon it, and disencumbers herself of any stray seaweed, combs her hair, looks in her mirror (set around with pearls of the ocean), and then, like another Undine or Ariel, sweetly sings.
The mere itself is probably a relic of the great lake which, there is good reason to believe, once extended the whole distance from Alderley to High Legh, and perhaps farther, and of which Tatton mere, Tabley mere, Mere mere, and the other lakes of this part of Cheshire, may be similar remains. It owes its name to the very ancient consecration of the eminence upon which the church now stands,—“Rostherne,” or, as in the time of the Saxons, “Rodestorne,” signifying the “lake (or tarn) of the Holy Cross.” An earnest and simple piety, such as prevailed eight centuries ago, might well select Rostherne for such a purpose, if the impression left by its lovely scenery upon cultivated and amiable minds to-day, be in anywise the reflex of what was given to our forefathers.
The depth of the water is immense. On the southern margin, a short distance to the west of the summerhouse, it is seventeen feet, and about a third of the distance across from this point, the depth is over a hundred feet. The English Channel at the Straits of Dover is not more than 156 feet deep where the lead sinks lowest, and between that point and the Eddystone Lighthouse it never exceeds 300 feet, so that our lovely Cheshire lake may well assert its claim to be considered of almost maritime profundity. The area of the surface is 115 statute acres; the extreme length is 1250 yards, and the extreme breadth 695 yards.
A bit of romance clings also to Rostherne. There is a legend that the mere was once connected with the Irish Sea by a subterranean channel, the entrance to which was somewhere near the mouth of the Mersey. Up this channel, on summer evenings, (or, as some say, on the morning of every Easter Sunday, in connexion with another legend about the church-bells,) there used to come, in days gone by, a mermaid, beautiful as Thetis herself, and whose lips,
“Uttering harmonious and dulcet breath,”
were the charm and fascination of the neighbourhood during her visits. But for many years her song has not been heard, and it is feared that she has gone the way of the fairies, or else that the corrupted water of the river disagrees with her. Modern science unweaves the rainbow, and contends that “natural selection,” rather than the blood of Apollo’s playmate, gave us the purple hyacinth and its lettered petals; and plain Manchester prose suggests that the Rostherne mermaid was only some ordinary though musical damsel of the village, who knew more of milking than of the waves of the sea, and possessed the usual number of feminine limbs.
’Mid the tall ancestral trees,
O’er the wind-swept mere, on the crested brow,
Where the hammer rung ’neath the greenwood bough,
While the hind on the glebe forsook his plough,
To gaze on the belfry frieze.
’Twas the morning sun saw the work begun,
And shafted oriels rung
With a deafening cheer, as the metal shone—
As the hoist was fix’d, and then one by one
The bolts were driven, and the work was done:
Each bell in the belfry swung.
A fresh green wreath from the trees they wove
And bound it about the bell,
Whose tone was sweet, e’en as the voice of Love,
Who might sit as queen in the belfry cove,
Whose clarion tongue, to lake, glen, and grove,
The tidings of joy should tell.
Soon the voice of praise to a whisper fell,
And there spread a sudden fear;
For an evil spirit possessed the bell—
Thro’ spar and thro’ rafter, to earth it fell;
Yea, it broke away with a thund’ring knell,
And plunged in the waveless mere.
But the men were merry, the work was brave,
And they stemm’d the shallow tide;
Sun-browned and sore did the toilers lave,
Ere the bell, updrawn from a lucid grave,
Back, all sound and strong, to the cove they gave,
With a full defiant pride.
But, as one who never might bondage brook,
It sounded a funeral knell;
And away it burst, (while each buttress shook,
E’en the tower reel’d, and the farthest nook
Flung echo back,) and the shore forsook;
And the waves closed o’er the bell.
But the men were merry, the work was brave,
And they stemm’d a deeper tide;
Then the bell, updrawn from its yielding grave,
Unflaw’d, to its royal berth they gave;
As the red sun sank o’er the western wave
A mightier stay they tried.
Many laughed—some jeer’d—but fear ’gan to creep
O’er the vent’rous builders all;
Thus sowing the harvest none e’er might reap;
For with boom, as cannon from castle keep,
Down, down rush’d the bell, with a headlong sweep,
And it plunged and roll’d down the grassy steep,
Away thro’ the rushes tall,
And far from the sounding shore;
Till, with wild intone and a gurgle deep,
The bubbles rose far, as it sank to sleep
Where mortal fingers ne’er dared to creep,
On Easter morn, ere the sun-king sheds
The light from his golden wings,
The waves rise and swell from their ocean-beds; †
Then a strange wild peal o’er the water spreads:
Uprises the fairest of golden heads—
To a bell a fair form clings.
There, sprung fresh from the waves of purpling light,
A mermaiden half reclines
On the floating bell—engulph’d from sight
Her grosser charms, save but the mystic might
By some sea-god thrown o’er a bust bedight
With trophies from ocean shrines.
Then she combeth her amber-dropping hair,
And looseth the sea-weed bands;
Purest ocean-pearls deck her mirror rare,
And she vieweth her wealth of beauty there;
Then, over an arm that were faultless fair,
She casteth her flowing strands.
The winds of Heaven come whispering through
The harp of the golden strings;
And Tara’s halls heard not notes so true
As the wild wood echoes awake anew:
No ripple e’er cometh the shore to woo,
For ariel power flings
A spell o’er all earth, and the mermaid crew
Listen to their queen from the deeper blue;
For this is the song she sings:
To soul-stirring music—the chimes of the spheres;
Where droppings of amber in coral caves glisten,
Rung on the bell by the genii of years.
“Oh! light is your wisdom, ye dull plodding mortals;
Base, sordid, and mean, is the wealth that ye prize;
The lot ne’er be yours to enter the portals
In the pearl-island where the mermaiden lies.
“Oh I could ye but sift all the gems of her pillow,
And gaze upon wealth that might re-star the skies,
Thread the amethyst mazes, hid under the billows,
Where courts of sardonyx and sapphire walls rise,
“Oh! then would the round earth wax warm with your thunder,
E’en cravings unholy, and strife among men,
Break the last links of your brotherhood asunder,
As ye grappled for sea-hoards disclosed to your ken.
“Oh! fair is the tower, and the bell that ye founded,
But little reck’d ye of the purpose ye wrought,
For deep ’neath the wave will earth’s death-knell be sounded
When the seasons revolve not, and time will be nought.
“Spin and plough, sow and reap—your castle walls heighten,
Yea, compass the ocean, and girdle the land:
Ye may lie ’neath the tower, or, sword-struck, may whiten:
Can your wisdom lay open the season at hand?
“Back, back to your bondage, ye children of sorrow
(True to your calling, ye have aided the spell);
Be your watchword, ‘Aye ready,’—fate brooks no to morrow:
List to the mermaids and the mermaidens’ bell.”
The sunbeams rest where the metal shone:
The bell has sunk with a sad refrain,
The Naiad bindeth her locks again;
With a mocking laugh she waves adieu,
Then dives, mayhap, to the deeper blue;
For a purple mist enshrouds her fate,
And the mere rolls drear and desolate.
† It is currently believed by the “oldest inhabitant” that the mere has no bottom, and an old superstition prevails that it has underground communication with the River Mersey or the sea; and that it is by the medium of this “tunnel” that the “mere” is still subject to the Easter Morning visitation described in the legend. Upon this theory the allusion to the “ocean” (here noted) is founded.
Merrily, merrily, over the Mere,
The echoes rose and fell;
Rose on the breeze, fell on the ear,
Dingdong the Rostherne bell.
On buttress old, and crumbling stone,
The masons plied their trade,
Repaired the courses overthrown,
The rents that time had made.
When, lo! from battlement to base
A shivering shakes the steeple;
Down drops the big bell from its place,
Right in among the people!
Down the steep bank that crowns the lake
It crashed, and leapt, and rolled,
Through birch-wood copse, and briar, and brake,
And ’mid the Lindens old.
Till on the margin of the Mere,
’Tis fain at length to settle,
Exhausted by its mad career,
That ponderous mass of metal.
But oh the sweat, and oh the toil,
The strain of the muscles’ power,
The bursting sob, the weary coil
To try it back to the Tower!
Quoth one in wrath: ‘Thou senseless lump,
I would the devil had you!’
When at the word, with a spring and a thump,
Back towards the lake it flew.
First, in its headlong course, it crushed
Th’ unlucky wight who swore,
Then down the bank it madly rushed
They never saw it more.
In depths unfathomable drowned,
No more that tuneful tongue
Shall greet the ear with cheerful sound
At morn or even song.
And now whenever peal the bells
From Rostherne’s tower so hoary,
The wailing sound too plainly tells
Of its departed glory.
Just to the north of Knutsford lies Rostherne with its mere, one of a small chain of meres, which stretch, a puzzle for geologists from the basin of the Weaver to that of the little river Bollin. This village of Rostherne is altogether charming, with an ancient church and a few scattered houses in a rich secluded valley. The church has noble monuments to the proud family that has lived for centuries here in dignified seclusion, and the graveyard with its mouldering heaps slopes steeply down towards the little lake — the last a thing quite unexpected here in Cheshire, which is not a lake county at all, and is very still, and peaceful, but melancholy-looking, shaded with high and thickly-wooded banks, where an everlasting silence seems to reign. Something about the lake in its solitary seclusion seems to have struck the popular imagination. The story goes, that when the church bells were first brought to Rostherne, one of the bells could not in any way be got into the church tower, but, breaking away from ropes and levers, rolled down the steep slope towards the mere, and went on rolling and rolling till it splashed right into the lake, where it was lost in the fathomless abyss. Fathomless indeed is the mere, according to popular estimation, and undoubtedly very deep; a depth of over a hundred feet has been actually measured, and that, for a bit of a mere like Rostherne, is a pretty good record. Now when the bell got to the bottom of the mere, if it has a bottom, it might reasonably have expected to rest there in peace, but that would be to reckon without the mermaids, notoriously addicted to bell-ringing.
Hark! now I hear them—ding dong bell
But how should mermaids get into Rostherne Mere? Well, the story goes that there exists, between Rostherne and the sea, an underground channel, and that every year on Easter morn a mermaid works her way through and rings the bell that lies at the bottom of the mere, so that those who got up early enough may hear it. The connection of the bell with Easter seems to class the legend with those children’s stories which are suggested by the customs of the old faith. For from Good Friday to Easter Sunday the bells are altogether silent, and when children, wondering, ask “What has become of the bells? they are told “They are gone to Rome to be blessed, but are coming back on Easter morn;” and so it turns out when at daybreak upon the hallowed morn, the children hear the joyous peal.
All kinds of legends are current about Rostherne as is the case with most lakes which are reported to be deep. One is, that a mermaid comes up on Easter Day and rings a bell; another, that it communicates with the Irish Channel by a subterranean passage; another, that it once formed, with Tabley, Tatton, Mere, and other lakes, a vast sheet of water that covered the country between Alderley Edge and High Leigh.
To an imaginative child, Alderley was the most delightful place possible, and whilst Owen Stanley delighted in the clear brook which dashes through the Rectory garden for the ships of his own manufacture – then as engrossing as the fitting out of the Ariel upon the mere in later boyhood – little Arthur revelled in the legends of the neighbourhood – of its wizard of Alderley Edge, with a hundred horses sleeping in an enchanted cavern, and of the church-bell which fell down a steep hill into Rostherne Mere, and which is tolled by a mermaid when any member of a great neighbouring family is going to die.
According to tradition, a vast sheet of water once stretched from Alderley Edge to High Legh, and the lovely mere of Rostherne was a part of it. In this mere a mermaid was seen every year on Easter Sunday, at dawn. She reached it by a subterranean passage which came from the Mersey. There seems to have been some curious affinity between mermaids and Easter, for on the same day, also at dawn, another appeared at Hayfield, in Derbyshire. It was said that anyone who saw her would live for ever. One old man used to go there regularly every year to look for her but, perhaps fortunately for himself, he never saw her. No such reward was held out for those who saw the Rostherne mermaid, but many people visited the mere in the hope of seeing her rise from the water and hearing her sing. It is not recorded that anyone ever did. She used to ring a sunken bell which lay at the bottom of the lake, and then sit on it and sing sweetly.
The presence of this bell there was due to an ill-timed curse. When the bells of Rostherne Church were being hung, the largest and heaviest broke away from its ropes and rolled back to the water’s edge. It was brought back again, but it broke away again. Three times this happened, and at last one of the workmen lost his temper and cursed it. Immediately it sank to the bottom, and there it remained.
Though some of the writers have combined the legend of the lost bell with the legend of the mermaid, most class them as separate tales – indeed D. Watts Russell doesn’t mention the mermaid at all. The two don’t seem to entirely belong together, and probably have separate origins. The tale of the bell that falls into the mere due to a blasphemous workman is very similar to that of Combermere, while the one of the mermaid has a lot in common with that of the Mermaid’s Pool. Tales of sunken bells or even entire villages almost always have the bell being heard ringing beneath the surface, and if there was also a tale of a mermaid inhabiting or visiting the mere it would seem natural for any story-teller to link the two together.
I’d like to thank Jon S Page of the Augustus Hare Society for his warning to me regarding the death-omen element of the mermaid’s ringing of the bell, which Hare attributed to a young Arthur Penrhyn Stanley: “As an aside, Augustus Hare is well known for having ‘elaborated’ many things in his books and this part of the Rostherne Mere legend might have been entirely created by Hare himself.” However it should be noted that one of the sources of the Combermere bell legend describes that as being a death omen, so either this is regarded as a common motif relating to sunken bells, or perhaps Stanley had confused the two.
Alfred Coward, in his book Picturesque Cheshire notes this curiosity: “There is an interesting piscatorial fact about Rostherne; smelts, salt-water fish, are acclimatized in the mere. Their origin, probably monastic introduction, is uncertain, but they survive, though practically land-locked.”
In the same book he also mentions the possibility of a mermaid in the nearby lake The Mere; writing of the adjacent village of Mere he says this: “If we can gather anything of the mysteries of heraldry there was a mermaid here as well as at Rostherne, for the Brooke crest is a mermaid proper—indeed quite proper, for she has golden hair and a green tail, and the necessary comb and mirror.” Or it may be that the Rostherne mermaid came about because of the heraldic mermaid at nearby Mere.
As Christina Hole points out, it’s interesting that both the Hayfield and the Rostherne mermaids appear at dawn on Easter Day. It may be that the stories have become confused. Another link between the two is that the Mermaid’s Pool at Hayfield is supposed to be connected to the Atlantic by a subterranean passage, something which would allow the mermaid to visit both pools – though not, presumably, at the same time.
The etymology for Rostherne is given by a couple of writers as being ‘Rood’s Tarn’, thus ‘the Lake of the Holy Cross’. But this interpretation, while popularly accepted in the 19th century, seems to be spurious. John McNeal Dodgson, in The Place-Names of Cheshire, Part II, after an extensive list of all the variant forms of Rostherne since the 1086 Domesday Book entry Rodestorne, gives:
If you like, you can see Rostherne Mere on Google Maps; though there is, I admit, not a lot to see.