The day job recently took me to Belgium, a country I first visited as a schoolgirl, but which has since seen me only fleetingly, passing through it on my way south from Rotterdam. It deserves far greater and closer scrutiny from me and I’m delighted now to be able to share a particular highspot of my all-too-brief stay.
KU Leuven is the largest university in Belgium. Founded in 1425, it today enjoys a formidable reputation as a leading and innovative European research establishment, having itself co-founded the League of European Research Universities.
My visit to its wonderful academic library, the Universiteitsbibliotheek, not far from the centre of Leuven, included a chance to see in use its imposing and spacious reading room
and a private guided group tour of its 73.5 metre bell tower, which now is open to the public (tickets from here). Access to the lower four floors of the tower, the square bit, is by spiral
staircase and these floors house an exhibition depicting the story of the double destruction by fire, in each of the two World Wars, of the library’s collections in two buildings, the old University Hall in the Oude Markt and this one.
We were guided by beiaardier/carilloneur Luc Rombouts. Under the tower’s stone cupola, he plays its carillon, one of the most beautiful in the world and donated by US engineers as a war memorial. Indeed, the whole of this 1928 Flemish Renaissance-style library was built with American funding.
The exhibition itself, a collection of still and moving images, proved to be a fascinating insight into the power of a library destroyed to excite outrage and generate propaganda. It is generally accepted that the 1914 fire was the work of German soldiers, but it is not completely clear which side was responsible for the one in 1940, though each blamed the other.
Fortunately, the forty-eight bells of the 1928 carillon, because of the design of the tower, could not be removed for munitions as they were elsewhere during WWII and survived, being added to in 1983 (again with US support) with a further fifteen bells.
Luc not only allowed us to see the carillon instrument, but brought time – the normal quarter-hour Reuzegom, a Flemish folk song – to a halt, in order to play for us; the sounds of the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ were soon filling the air around us, the square in front of the library and the lovely city of Leuven itself. He demonstrated on this organ-like machine skills which had taken him four years to learn, banging his fists on the baton keyboard and pumping the pedals with his feet; he also told us about the bells themselves – they were ordered from the Croydon foundry of Gillett and Johnston, because English bells had the finest, most accurate pitch; he made the whole visit interesting, personal and friendly and our sincere thanks are due to him for all of this.
All text, photographs and video on this website © Christina James