America’s Liberty Bell. Montreal Cathedral’s Great Bell. Big Ben himself. Name an important chimer from Western history, and chances are Whitechapel Bell Foundry cast it. Sure, the Liberty Bell cracked, by which time it was too late to exchange it, but the foundry’s craftsmanship is not in question—Guinness verified it as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, established in 1570, with lineage traceable to 1420. Back then, fulsome industries such as metalworking were found in the East End, where the prevailing winds would carry the grime out of town. This foundry, still operating in a brick-front building from the late 1600s, conducts tours of its cramped, messy workshops on some Saturdays—always when workers are off duty, because flying sparks and molten metal sting a little. A visit isn’t plastic in any way; tours (full weeks or months ahead) dodge piles of metal dust, sand, shavings, and aged workbenches to collect around heavyweight bells cooling in their molds. Every aspect of the craft, from casting to buffing, is given its due. You’ll even learn that the foundry uses a siren to tell workers when it’s time for a break. Why? “Well,” says the guide, “When you work in a bell factory . . . .” There’s also a small museum and shop (teeny bells, musical scores for handbells), open weekdays, which don’t require tickets.
Update: Shockingly, the Foundry reports it will close in mid-2017. If you want to go, make reservations now.