The twin hubs of many an English country village are the church and the pub. The former calls the faithful to their knees with the pealing of bells from on high; the latter often brings the faithful to their knees with the tolling of the barkeeper's friend that rings the changes of last orders at the bar.

The old church in our village 10 kilometers north of Cambridge celebrated its 800th anniversary a few years ago and still has as active a bunch of bell ringers as ever it did. The "Captain" of the bell ringers, Simon Wilson, told visitors to the bell tower on a rare open day how centuries of wear and tear had required renovations and fixes and at one point in relatively recent history the relocation of the six enormous, cast bronze bells to a newly reinforced portion of the tower lower than their original roost among the bats.

Intriguingly, he pointed out that what is commonly referred to as the "Westminster Chimes" a melodic and familiar peal of bells is more correctly known as the "Cambridge Chimes" and was simply hijacked by its bigger and brassier London counterpart. Funnily enough, Cambridge, and specifically our village of Cottenham, had no choice in the matter, which is particularly galling given that Cottenham was home of Hobson's stable in "Hobson's Choice".

Anyway, that bronze, is rich and resonant especially the sonority of the largest of the six bells at All Saints Church, Cottenham. The current bells were originally cast in 1800 by the company of John Briant of Hertford, although there was previously a peal of five bells that were in place almost a century earlier. We all know from the school science textbooks that metals and their alloys are generally shiny, can be stretched and cast, and most importantly for bell ringers of all flavors, whether in the church or the pub, have a rather appealing sound when struck.

Bronze, of course, is an alloy of copper with up to about 12-15 percent of the composition being tin, the precise proportions endowing the alloy with its specific characteristics. Additionally, other elements, including aluminum, arsenic, lead, manganese, nickel, silicon, and zinc, might find themselves part of the overall alloy structure and again temper the character of the final product. Handbells are more commonly made of brass, the alloy of mostly copper and zinc with various elemental additives. At this particular establishment even the handbells are bronze and Captain of the handbell ringers was the late Gerald Walker who was also one of the main ringers of the belfry. Intriguingly, during the dark days of World War II it was handbells that were chimed rather than the larger and so much louder bells of the tower.

We often think of materials science as a modern science. But, it is a science with a rich and sonorous   history and as we well know the ages of humanity are often demarcated by the material that was a la mode at the time whether stone, iron, bronze, or perhaps today, the silicon or plastic age. For some though who hear the ringing of bells, whether on their way to church or at "chucking out" time at the pub, we have been in the bronze and brass age for centuries.

David Bradley also writes at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase. His popular science book Deceived Wisdom is now available.