Monday, March 19, 2018

Into the Belfry

Taking advice from my St. Mary’s Church tour friend from Penzance—the one who told me I was a good listener and showed me how bells worked using a wine glass—I check for change ringing practices in Liverpool.

St. Mary's Church Bell Tower
According to the site I find, I’ve just missed the Lent ringing but there are two other dates listed for March. So, as instructed, I email the Cathedral Guild officer to see if I can come visit during a practice. Then I sit back, relax, and wait for an answer.

I can’t quite say exactly when I fell for bells.

Perhaps it was on my first trip to Europe when I heard them chime out the hours as I wandered from city to city.

Maybe a seed of interest was planted long ago when I first read Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors which is all about change ringing, bell towers, bells, bell ringers, and, of course, murder.

Maybe it happened a couple years ago on the morning I was with my older sister in Bad Wildbad, Germany in our charming little apartment when the Sunday morning bells pealed long and longer still. The longest peal I’d ever heard. 

Bad Wildbad, Germany
“Will it go on forever?” I asked, wonderingly, hopefully, and rhetorically. I got up from reading to go stand at the window and look out over the river, the train tracks, and the cobbled streets, as if that would help me hear better. And, in that filled space of joyful ringing, I felt as if we’d come to stay in a fairytale world.
At that moment, I wanted to know who rang the bells. I wanted to know how many bells there were. I wanted to know if someone would let us into the bell tower, show us around, and tell us all there was to tell. But, I didn’t get that opportunity in Germany. I didn’t know how to pursue my interest. My sister and I didn’t have that many days there. I really wasn’t even sure what questions to ask or who to ask them of once I’d figured them out for myself. Also, my German was really really bad. By bad I mean I didn’t speak German at all except for the words please and thank you (and I probably even mispronounced those).

The bell of Saint-Emilion
A few weeks later, still with my sister, we climbed to the top of the bell tower in Saint-Emilion, France and came down from the roof just as it rang out the 3:00 hour. There, I had an ultimate bell tower experience, I got to be inside a bell tower when the bell rang and I got to see the clapper striking the bell. So that’s how it works, I thought.

At the time, with such evidence witnessed with my own eyes I thought that surely now, in this day and automated age, all bell towers had been converted from manual ringing to programed clappers. Ringers replaced by robots.  
But, that is not true.

The four-hundred-year history of British change ringing still carries on today with real bells and real ringers. And I might have the chance to witness this with my own eyes and hear it with my own ears.

To my great joy, the Guild officer emails back to say that I can come, gives me instructions on where to meet, and says if I’d like to see the bells themselves I can come early and do that. This is almost more than I could have wished for. A dream come true. She says there will be two groups of visiting ringers and because of that I may not get much one-on-one time with the ringing master or the deputy ringing master. I’m okay with that. I don’t really know what she means by one-on-one time. Anyway, I just want to watch. I just want to listen. I still don’t know what questions I have.

Liverpool Cathedral
The week flies by and soon enough I catch the bus that will take me to Liverpool Cathedral.
At the appointed time I’m the only one at the meet up spot. A brief fear strikes me that I’ve come to the wrong cathedral. But this is a silly fear, for moments later, the Guild officer arrives with several other people in tow. I introduce myself and she, busy organizing the two groups, breezily passes me off to her husband with the firm admonishment, “Be sure she’s taken care of, she’s come a long way especially to see the bells.” Which, while not exactly true, is true enough.

Thus assigned to care, I get to go up the two elevators with the first group and my somewhat reticent guide.

Bartlett's Coffer
In the tower where the bell ropes hang through the ceiling over a circular platform, my guide asks me where I’m from and why I’ve come. Then, warming up, he gives me a little history about the tower and Thomas Bartlett, the man with the money, whose bequest was the bells.
“He died before the work was completed. But he had some forethought.” My guide smiles and with a slight beckoning gesture begins to walk away. 
I follow. We cross over a thick beam structure and head to the left. There, over the door that leads the way higher into the tower, is a coffer. “Bartlett’s ashes are there,” he says.
“So,” I say, delighted. “He can hear the bells forever.”
“He designed the urn. You’ll see that the angel at the top is holding a hand bell.”
So it is.

His duties done, my guide goes off to help with greeting the incoming groups and to get ready for the change ringing practice as I wander around and take pictures.

That done, I lean up against a large beam and listen in to conversations. The seconds tick on by. Just as I’m beginning to think the bell viewing won’t happen, someone announces that if we want to go see the bells—“As I’m sure you do,” the speaker says—we can climb the stairs (through the very door over which Thomas Bartlett’s ashes sit) and go up to the bell floor.

Of course, I’m first in line.

With one hand on the wall, I begin to climb the rather narrow spiral staircase. 

A young boy chases up the steps right at my heels. Rather than increase my own speed, I move aside and say, “You can first.”
“No, it’s okay,” he says. “You can.”
“You’re just much faster than I am.”
He pauses a beat and then says, “I’m faster than most people.”
Since he won’t pass me, I keep on going and he keeps on following right behind me, my new young friend.

And then, there are the bells.


This tower—Vestley Tower of Liverpool Cathedral—is home to 14 bells. Twelve which are used on a frequent basis for the ringings. The thirteenth is a sharp 2nd which has something to do with the diatonic scale. Two people tell me this while I’m confirming the number of bells in light conversation a little later before the ringing begins. I vaguely understand diatonics with regards to music. Enough to smile and nod, but only enough to say this here: the sharp 2nd makes it possible to ring a major key with lighter notes rather than with the heavier bells. [I just scanned an article which explained in “easy” terms why this is desirable but got lost a little when it started talking about light eights, rings of twelves, and rings of tens in melodic minor keys.] 

The 14th bell is Great George a low C sharp who is truly great. 14.5 tonnes great. That’s 31,967.03 pounds great. Great George (I’m told this also more than once) is only second in size to Great Paul of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and is not a hung bell. This means that when given voice on special occasions Great George is rung by clapper rather than swung.
I bet Great George’s voice is something to hear.

I make my way around the bells in their radial reinforced concrete frame which is also claimed for Liverpool Cathedral as being one of kind, shivering as the outside air howls in through the tower’s walls’ slats. The temperature hovers around freezing on this St. Patrick’s Day and snowflakes float above me like dust motes. The room has a musty smell, like old books, like old wood, like time and height and weight. It’s magical. I’ve never been happier. I’ve never been luckier to be me. I tighten up my scarf and zip my coat up a little higher so that I don’t have to say that I’ve never been colder.  

Eventually, we all go back to the ringing room.

The Ringing Master calls for ringers to come to their bells for a warm up ring.

And, so it begins. I sit back in a chair and watch the pull and release of the ropes, the rhythm, the watching by the ringers of the person next to them, the timing.

The pealing of the bells is soft, I think they’re still half muffled from the Lent Service. One of my new change ringing friends, who began ringing when he was thirteen and might be somewhere in his fifties now, tells me that they’re muffled for New Year’s Eve and then unmuffled to bring in the New Year. Muffled again for Lent and released to full sound for Easter. Muffled to symbolize the old and the dead, given full voice to symbolize new life.

Though soft (though what do I have to compare it with), the sound comes through the ceiling and through the walls still beautiful, still bright, still resounding. Another new friend, a third- generation ringer who has been change ringing since he was eight years old, said he thinks they sounded better muffled, “The acoustics are terrible in the tower. You saw how big and open it is. Muffling somehow clarifies the sound.”

Change ringing is not playing a tune. Change ringing is, as says, “a team sport, a highly coordinated musical performance, an antique art, and a demanding exercise that involves a group of people ringing rhythmically a set of tuned bells through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns.” From where I sit, it looks like hard work that takes a lot of concentration.

At some point, as if I haven’t already had the bell tower experience of all experiences, the Ringing Master says that those who want to can take the elevator to the 10th floor to watch the bells from above as they’re rung.
For the third ring, I go up with a couple of other people, including my fast stair-climbing friend who had just rung a bell himself in the last set.

“You did well,” I tell him as we wait for the elevator with our ear-cancelling headphones in hand. 

“Not really,” he says, with a rueful smile, “I messed up some. I could have done better.” He’s maybe eleven? Maybe twelve? I can’t tell and I forget to ask him. He’s part of a group of kids and teenagers who have come as one of the two visiting groups to ring tonight. I can tell the younger kids have come together because they’re wearing matching shirts that a few of the adults are wearing as well. When taking their turns at the bells, the younger and newer ringers have a more experience ringer standing just behind them to tell them when to pull and when to pull again. He might not have rung perfectly, but I’m impressed.

Once out of the elevator, my friend and I press up against the concrete half walls of the stairway that overlook the bells and look down. The bells move in their synchronized patterns, going up the scale and back around. It’s mesmerizing. The sound, though muffled by the earphones, is clearer, louder, and splendid. My young friend and I exchange awed glances and then he’s off with another bell-ringing friend (brother?) to go up to another level or back down somewhere else. That’s just the way he is my friend, always moving, and moving fast.

On my own, I take pictures and videos. I don’t want to miss anything. But in the recording of an event, I often miss out on the present moment. Knowing this, I try to remember to breathe, to be. To be here.

When the sequence is finished and the bells are still again, I go back down the elevator and wait as the Ringing Master calls the next pattern and makes sure each rope has a ringer in front of it. A woman takes the rope for the largest bell and I watch her as she pulls off (this is a technical term one of my new friends taught me and means to start ringing the bell from its standing position ie., bell mouth up), using the full extension of her arms to bring the rope down hard each time her turn comes around, nearly squatting fully to do so, and then coming back up to her toes as the wheel takes the rope back upward. It’s a workout, I can tell. Though not as great as Great George in size, this bell is a large, deep-toned bell, echoing and satisfying as it completes the scale and balances out the frivolity of the lighter notes. The bells from here sound so distant after the nearness I’d just experienced on the 10th floor. But it’s still majestic. When they’re done, the woman comes down off the platform breathing heavily, tired out. “That was hard,” she says. However, the workout doesn’t prevent her from taking a lighter bell on the next round and ringing without complaint.

While they set up in front of the ropes for another run, this time alone, I go back up to watch again from above the bells. How could I not, given the chance? I leave my camera in my bag, I leave my phone in my pocket and simply listen and watch the bells as they ring. Once, I lift one side of my earphones off my ears, and the sound magnifies, overwhelms, enchants. When the bells stop, I come down shivering with cold. Chilled and delighted. 

Though the ringing room is warmer than the bell tower, I sit shivering through the rest of the practice, but not unhappily so. When it’s all over and the ropes are set back to their resting positions, we all trek out. I’m one of the last to leave and get the thrill of going down some back stairways, usually off limits to visitors, as the elevator has suddenly stopped working at the third floor.
On the ground level once more, I thank and thank again the Cathedral Guild officer, her husband, and my other friends for letting me be there, and then head out alone and happy into the cold night. I get myself from the cathedral and through the maze of streets to the bus stop. I stand there for a moment and then look around me. The streets are busy with people. I hear raucous singing in the distance. I see a group of women with green feather boas draped around their necks. There’s a hum in the air that might still carry the tones of the bells within it.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and I’m not quite ready to go on home. So naturally, I go to a pub and get a glass of wine.

I’m lucky to get a table.

The place is stuffed to the gills with celebrators wearing green rimmed hats (which could be purchased at the bar for a pound and might have gone to a cause of some kind) and other hatless celebrators out for St. P’s Day fun and severely underdressed for the weather. I’d put long underwear on underneath my jeans and glance astonished at the girls who come into The Flute wearing short skirts sans leggings, hose, or other warming sartorial devices, not for shock of the shortness of the skirt lengths, but for the cold. Better them than me. Out of the tower and out of the wind, with my coat draped over the back of my chair, I tap my foot along to the blaring music and successfully work away the chill I’d brought out of the belfry with me. I settle back and sip at my wine.

From the cathedral to the pub, I write in my notebook along with the date, the place, and the time. Somehow it seems fitting. Somehow it seems the perfect end for a perfect bell experience.

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