“Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky” - famous words from our national poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow;

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Perhaps you recognise the quotation - but did you know that the bells referred to were those of Waltham Abbey? Earlier in the poem Tennyson says:

A single church below the hill

Is pealing, folded in the mist

He wrote those words at the end of 1837 when he and his family were living at Beech Hill House, off Pynest Green Lane at High Beach.

At this time he was aged about 28 and was suffering from a series of personal tragedies. The death of his father while Alfred was studying at Cambridge University left the family (he was one of 11 children) with limited financial resources. Alfred had already published some of his poems and managed to resist pressure from his grandfather that he should enter the church, and he continued with his writing.

While at Cambridge Alfred had developed a deep friendship with a fellow student, Arthur Hallam, who shared his love of poetry and his sensitive nature. Their friendship was further strengthened when Hallam became engaged to Alfred’s sister Emily. Alfred and Arthur travelled abroad and he was inspired to write some of his finest poetry, including ‘The Lady of Shalott’. Sadly, the critics of the time did not recognise his genius and their scornful reviews were a further crushing blow when the poems were published.

Then in 1833 Arthur Hallam died suddenly leaving Alfred bereft of the soul-mate who had helped him over his previous tragedies. He started to write occasional ‘Elegies’ for Hallam which were eventually woven together and published as ‘In Memoriam’ in 1850.

It was in June 1837 that the family moved away from Lincolnshire and came to live at High Beach. Alfred’s sister Cecilia described their new home as “very prettily situated on a hill” although she found Waltham “a melancholy looking town”. She and Alfred walked in Epping Forest where the lopped trees “looked like so many Ghosts by moonlight”. She said: “Many parts of the Forest are high, from which parts between the Trees the country looks very well and though rather flat still there is a grandeur about it”. The poet was frequently seen in the forest, walking with his hands behind him under his coat, or sometimes sitting on a fallen tree reading a book.

Alfred took a while to adjust to the scenery which was different from that which he had left behind in Lincolnshire. In December 1837 he wrote: “I have been at this place all the year, with nothing but that muddy pond in prospect . . .” referring to the lake which still exists in the grounds of Beech Hill House. His biography mentions that Alfred could be seen skating on the pond in the winter, sailing about on the ice in his long blue cloak.

There were more personal tragedies but in 1842 more of his poetry was published in two volumes which were to prove the turning point of his career. Although they were not an immediate success and there were further setbacks along the way, by 1850 Tennyson was established as a poet of national standing. In that year he was created Poet Laureate, his tribute to Arthur Hallam ‘In Memoriam’ was published and he at last married his sweetheart.

“Ring out wild bells” is a quotation from “In Memoriam” written that first Christmas at Beech Hill House when he still longed for Lincolnshire.

Georgina Green has been involved with local history in Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the Epping Forest area for 40 years and served as the honorary secretary of the Woodford Historical Society from 1987 to 2000. She is the author of several local history books and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2021.