Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Bat in the Belfry - An evening with the Bellringers of Hobart



Entrance to St. David's belltower - it's much bigger than it looks

 It was going to be a cracker of a frost. It was already freezing when I met with the Hobart Bellringers outside St. David’s Cathedral last night. Then we made our way up into the tower. While the present Cathedral (begun 1872 with the belltower completed in 1931) has always been an imposing Hobart landmark, I had never really appreciated how enormous it was until I began climbing those narrow spiral stairs. Tonight I was being initiated into the arcane world of bell ringing or more precisely, change ringing which Wiki defines as “The art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a controlled manner.”

While many countries have wonderful church bells, this particular branch of campanology is largely confined to the Anglophone world.  Initially Christian missionaries used hand bells to call the faithful to church, but by the 550’s church bells were installed in many parishes. By the C7th a number of beliefs had evolved around bells, imbuing them with the power to heal, to ward off enemies, the plague and assorted evil spirits and to protect the souls of the recently departed from being caught by the devil.

Although the Reformation of 1536 resulted in many churches and their bells being destroyed, the revival in 1600 led to incorporation of new technologies such as the mounting of bells on wheels which allowed them  to swing 360° and made them easier to control. The latter part of the 1600s saw the publication of  guide books which enabled ringers to follow complex sequences, rather than having them called by the chief ringer. A full rendition of such peals involving all the permutations takes much skill and many hours. The current record holders, ringers from all over the UK who performed at the Loughborough  Bell Foundry where St. David's bells were also made, took almost eighteen hours to achieve this on eight bells in 1963. An ‘extent’ as it’s called, on twelve bells, would take over thirty years

The local bellringers are a friendly bunch
Originally a pastime of the aristocracy, bell ringing became popular with all classes. Women entered the field in 1896 and in keeping with the times a Ladies Guild of Change Ringers formed in 1912. Despite decline in both churchgoing and bellringing after World War 1, change ringing began to enjoy renewed popularity in the 1950s, reaching a climax with the beginning of the new Millenium when 95% of the church bells in the UK were rung.  ( Click here for more on the History of Bellringing).

According to Wiki, the UK still has the largest concentration of English - style rings (sets of change ringing bells) with 6798 in England, 24 in Scotland, 37 in Ireland, and 227 in Wales. There are also 48 in the USA,  8 each in Canada and New Zealand and 13 in the whole of Africa, but Australia with 59 is well represented.

Nor is bellringing as solemn a pastime as you might expect
The Hobart Branch has around twenty members who mostly ring at St. David’s with occasional performances at Trinity Church in North Hobart.  Only about twelve are present tonight and  a friendly bunch they are –  ranging from teenagers to seniors and from all walks of life. At the top of the first set of stairs we enter a brightly lit room where about a dozen ropes ending in what look like hangman's nooses (they aren't - a bellringer's knot is specifically designed to unravel if someone should accidentally become entangled) are hanging  from  holes in the  high ceiling.

The ringing room is largely insulated from the sound of the bells by two more floors
After introducing themselves, they take up their places before the ropes. As the bells begin to chime above us, I must have looked a little disappointed at only being able to see them on a TV monitor with no idea of what they actually looked like or how big they were. Then Miranda, one of the members, hands me some headphones and offers  to take me to the belfry. We climb up two more spiral staircases to a glass door through which I can see the bells in action. St. David’s has ten bells plus a #3 and #7 and five extra chiming bells. The bells are huge  - they range in size from 200kg up to 1056kg (over a tonne) and the sound is deafening despite the headphones and glass door. 

Two floors up in the belfry the sound is deafening as the bells swing into action
Back down in the ringing room, the ringers are hard at work. The looks on their faces are a mixture of meditative rapture and deep concentration. It looks easy enough – pull down the ropes, let the sally – that  coloured woollen  part, rise almost to the ceiling and then  gently pull it down again, but it must be a lot harder than it looks – getting the sequence right, getting the rhythm right and never ever repeating a movement.  Eli who has been practising for about six weeks is not allowed to join in and two of the ropes are tantalisingly vacant. I ask Doug if I can give the one nearest to me a test pull to see what it feels like.

L-R  David, Doug, Kate and Rachael hard at work

“No!“ he cries in alarm.  “That one will pull you straight up to the ceiling.“  Suitably daunted I sit down again. They will be practising for another two hours. It must take quite a bit of stamina. No wonder some groups in the UK are calling for it to be recognised as a sport.


Why do it? As Doug says on the Hobart Bellringers website, it’s not just fun, but addictive as well. There is the friendship of fellow ringers not just locally but around the world, with visiting ringers being welcome in belltowers everywhere. There is the sense of being part of the community and part of important events.  Then there’s the challenge.  As Doug puts it,
“Change ringing requires physical coordination, memory, rhythm and concentration, but gives you a real buzz when everything comes together.”  
And then there is the sound. As Doug says,
“Bells rung in the English tradition have a glorious sound. Being part of its creation can be a spine tingling experience.”

Doug became involved because in the 1970s  a school friend in the UK was going to learn it and it seemed like a good idea. Eli says he had gone to St. Andrews School in Sydney and had always been fascinated by the bells there. I would have liked to talk to some of the younger members too, but it's getting late and those biscuits on the table are starting to look way too tempting.

What the ringers see
The cold air hits me as I leave the tower. The joyful sound of the bells is all around. Though you can hear them often in most parts of Hobart, knowing who’s making it happen – real people with names and faces, gives this an entirely new dimension.  
Thank you Doug, David, Miranda, Eli and all those other lovely people who made me so welcome. Should you be interested in joining the Hobart Bellringers or finding out more about bell ringing generally, feel free to contact them via their website


St. David's belltower in quiet repose in daylight


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