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Why are Sweden's centuries-old bell towers burning?

Bell tower Hagshults church
2015: the bell tower at Hagshults church in Småland. Photo: Kent Olsson (CC BY-SA

Another small piece of our beautiful cultural heritage has gone up in smoke. On the night of Wednesday 30 September the bell tower at Hagshult church was totally destroyed in Vaggeryd parish, Småland, in a fire. Police suspect it may have been arson.

Since 1775, the bell tower at the medieval Hagshults Church in Småland has been ringing for worship. The belfry was 245 years old. To put that in perspective, that means that roughly 10 generations of Hagshults residents have grown up to the sound of the bells. 10 generations.

As if this fire is not bad enough, and definitely a day of sorrow for the people of Hagshult and all of us who feel a deep reverence for our cultural heritage, the bell tower in Hagshult is just one of several beautiful, centuries-old bell towers that have burned in recent years.

2016 Sigtuna's bell tower burned, which has stood on the same hill near St Mary's Church since the 18th century.

In 2017, the Eastern Bell Tower in Nyköping burned, which has stood on the site of the Church of All Saints since 1725.

The bell tower at St Mary's Church in Sigtuna. Burned down in 2016. Photo by Arild Vågen (CC BY-SA)

A burnt-out bell tower is a tragedy.

Two burnt bell towers in two years is bad luck.

Three burnt bell towers in four years is a pattern that should raise questions.

Questions that deserve consideration. Questions that deserve answers. And above all, questions that should call for action!

East Bell Tower
Östra Klockstapeln in Nyköping, which burned down in 2016. Photo: TS Eriksson (CC BY-SA)

The big question, of course, is, why are Sweden's bell towers burning?

Is the electricity in the bell towers as old as the buildings and therefore particularly prone to causing fires, or is it someone or some who are intent on burning down our Swedish cultural heritage? Or is it in fact Christianity that is under attack?

Certainly, the police could not prove that the bell tower in Nyköping was burnt down intentionally, which led the media to later deny that the fire had been set. The truth is, however, that it is still not known what started the fire.

The fires also raise questions that go beyond bell towers.

How do we protect the beautiful but energy-rich part of our cultural heritage that is built in wood?

What is being done to protect cultural heritage from accidental fire hazards such as electrical faults? Is there regular inspection of the electricity? If not, why not?

What is being done to protect cultural heritage from heritage-hating arsonists?

What about fire protection in the bell towers? Are there automatic alarms linked directly to the alarm centre? It takes about three minutes by car from the fire station in Sigtuna to the bell tower at St Mary's Church. The bell tower was already heavily burnt when the fire brigade arrived, and that tells me that there was no automatic alarm (or that a lot of lighter fluid was used). If there had been, they might have arrived in time to save the building.

Are automatic sprinkler systems available? Probably not. Should there be? It is easier and certainly cheaper to dry out a wooden building filled with sprinkler water after a fire than to have to rebuild it from scratch. Of course, one challenge with heritage buildings is that you want to make as little intervention in them as possible.

For bell towers and other unheated heritage buildings, antifreeze would be required in the water to prevent the sprinkler system from freezing, but to my knowledge it is not uncommon to add just that to sprinkler systems. There are also other freeze-proof, automatic extinguishing solutions - especially for smaller, enclosed spaces like a clock tower where it doesn't matter if the extinguishing solution is really ugly either. A point sprinkler with 12 kg of powder automatically extinguishes any fire within a diameter of 4 metres, and requires neither piping nor power. Costs 3000 SEK each. Pretty decent cost to save a building from the 18th century, or at least stop the fire from growing until the emergency services arrive.

But what to do with the buildings that burned down?

The answer to the last question is of course simple. You rebuild them.

This is also precisely what was chosen to do in both Sigtuna and Nyköping, which I must say was very gratifying. The bell towers were rebuilt in the same form, but with improved safety. Sigtuna's new clock tower inaugurated in 2018 and Nyköping's new East Clock Tower was inaugurated in autumn 2019.

The Eastern Bell Tower in Nyköping during the reconstruction in 2019. Photo: Kavelgrisen (CC BY-SA)
The new East Bell Tower in Nyköping, with its beautiful copper roof, which was inaugurated on 29 September 2019. Photo: TS Eriksson (CC BY-SA)

What is destroyed can always be rebuilt. What has been destroyed can be rebuilt. What is lost can be recovered. If you want to and put your mind to it.

I want to!

I do not profess to be a Christian, but I do see the beauty of our Christian heritage - the old churches, the bell towers, the cultural environments. Yet I want to preserve that beauty for future generations, just as I want to preserve the homesteads, the burial grounds, the rune stones, even the loathsome bailiffs' castles where the commoners were whipped and tortured. For all this is my cultural heritage, mine roots, mine ancestral work, and therefore I want to preserve it for my descendants.

Beauty is always worth protecting, always worth preserving, always worth rebuilding.

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