I was spending a second morning working on my fourth novel (working title: Silent Saturday). The very first scene is set in the belltower of a Flemish village church and I had spent the previous day setting the scene and getting the hero and heroine into the belltower. It was only when I booted up my MacBook on Tuesday morning that I started to question what I had written the day before. I had envisaged the pair of them climbing a stone spiral staircase straight up to the belltower from the vestibule of the church. But now I started to wonder whether that was realistic or not. Do churches still have bellropes hanging down, and would these be in the vestibule too? I hadn't mentioned them. And would the staircase go straight up to the bells or would there be a landing with access to the organ loft? Come to that, how many bells would there be up there? One? Four? Forty-six? (A quick check on the Internet showed that some Belgian churches do have more than forty bells, if they have a carillon.) Eventually I decided that there was nothing for it. I would walk up to the church in my village and have a look. I wasn't very hopeful of getting into the church at 9.30am on a filthy wet Tuesday morning, and I definitely didn't think the tower would be open, but I might be able to answer the question about the bellropes, and I certainly wasn't getting anywhere entering klokken + kerk into Google.
So I walked up to the church, which is partly romanesque and partly Gothic. To my relief it turned out to be open, though deserted. No sign of any bellropes, although there was a circular hole in the ceiling of the vestibule that had been filled in. To my surprise the door leading to the staircase up to the organ loft was unlocked, so I was able to go up. No stone stairs, and no spiral, either; there were several flights of fairly modern-looking wooden stairs turning a corner at right-angles. I was able to get into the organ loft, but it seemed there was no way of getting into the belfry at all, so no way of seeing how many bells there were.
On the way home, I decided on impulse to nip into the newsagent's shop in the village and question the friendly local man who runs it. He said he didn't go to mass at that church so he couldn't tell me much about it, but he thought the bells were controlled automatically nowadays. "The priest sends a GSM," he told me.
I went home, sat down again, and wondered whether to change the stone stairs in the story to wooden ones, and have a door leading to the organ loft halfway up them. It didn't seem a very satisfactory arrangement, and not half as creepy as the original setting. After playing about with a few ideas and deleting more than I had added, I finally decided that I would have to visit another church. The one in the story is supposed to be romanesque, as it happens there is a very pretty romanesque church in one of the villages in this area. If I could only see what the arrangements were in the belltower, they would be perfect for the fictional church. This time I had to take the car.
I parked in a side street and took a path across the churchyard. The church door was open but once again there was not a soul in sight. I went inside. There were no access doors to the upper areas at all in the vestibule, but there was one each at the back of the nave. One of them was obviously modern; the other looked much older, and had been blocked off with chairs. Both of them had locks. Somewhat pessimistically, I tried the newer door; it opened. Inside was a room crammed with various bits of furniture and what appeared to be the priest's bicycle. There was a flight of stairs running up to the organ loft. I went up but there was clearly no access to the belltower.
Back in the nave, I picked up the information sheet about the church, but although it gave plenty of details about the history of the church etc it said nothing about the bells. There was, however, a plan of the church showing the two doorways at either side of the nave. The one I had already tried led onto a square room (the one with the bicycle in it) and the other one apparently gave onto a spiral staircase.
I decided to try the older door. It didn't look promising; there was a piece of wood nailed to the door which suggested that it had been somehow barricaded shut, and there was a new-looking lock. All the same, I thought I might as well try the handle. I pushed, and the door opened. Behind it was a very narrow, very worn and extremely dark stone spiral staircase.
My Flemish is reasonably good by now and I was pretty sure I hadn't overlooked any signs saying "keep out" or "no access to the belltower" but on the other hand, the door was shut and there were chairs lined up in front of it. I had visions of some angry churchwarden turning up and berating me in Flemish, and me lamely telling him I was doing research for a book. Still, I had already answered one of my questions, which was that it was possible to have the access to the organ loft on one side of the church and have a separate staircase on the other leading specifically to the belfry. It was a simply irresistible opportunity to find out exactly what was up there. In I went.
The stone stairs were extremely worn, with great dips in the middle, and the staircase itself was not much wider than a shoulders' width. There wasn't any handrail either (Health and
Safety not existing in the Middle Ages) and it was so dark I couldn't see where I was putting my feet. I fumbled my way up the stairs. I was surprised to realise that I was actually frightened. My heart was thumping and I had an unpleasant tingling feeling in my stomach. Partly I was afraid someone would turn up and start shouting at me for being somewhere I shouldn't be, but it was also extremely unpleasant being in such a dark narrow space, not knowing where the stairs led or how far up they went.
Eventually I came to the top and found myself in a square room with stone walls and a wooden floor. No sight of the bells yet; instead there was a rickety-looking wooden staircase leading up to the next floor. In for a penny, in for a pound; up I went, now feeling very nervous, and trying to ignore the clumps of dirt and cobwebs all over the stairs and the handrail.
The next floor up proved to be the height of the church clock. I found myself in a square room with windows on three sides. It was extremely cold because the windows were louvred, not glazed, and the wind was howling through them. With the open space leading to the floor below, and a further open space above me leading to the next floor, it all felt horribly unstable. It was much as I imagine it would be perched in the crow's nest of a sailing ship; the wind and the impression of empty space all around were so strong that I felt as though I would be blown away. The room was also an unpleasant mess of thickly-encrusted birds' droppings, which didn't make me feel any better about being there; there are all sorts of nasties you can catch from contact with those, and here they were so thick that you couldn't touch anything without coming into contact with them. I had a look at the ladder up to the next floor, but it shifted when I touched it, and I dared not go up it. However, by standing at the bottom of it and putting my head back I could see up through the next levels, through a nest of wooden beams, to the church bell itself. That was another question answered: there was a single bell, green with age.
I turned to go back down, and then I had a real twinge of vertigo. The wooden stairs looked much more open, much less robust than they had when I climbed up. Reluctantly I had to hang onto the filthy handrail all the way down, promising myself that I would scrub my hands and wrists as soon as I got home (mental note to self: don't bite your nails on the way back). I went back down the stone staircase, very carefully closed the door at the bottom, replaced the chairs and went outside.
As I walked back to my car I realised that my legs were actually aching, not with exertion but with tension. Why was I so scared? I'm still not sure. I didn't want to get in trouble with anyone, certainly, but I hadn't seen a soul. I think perhaps it was the coldness and filth in the belfry. It was a very desolate place. I'm glad I got the information I had set out to get, but I'm not sure I'd go up there again.