Chiming at St Paul’s

The COVID pandemic has affected the life of almost everybody on earth in innumerable ways. One of its lesser-known effects has been the near-total suspension of the ringing of church bells in the English style (change ringing). This is certainly trivial in the grand scheme of things, but the cancellation of my favourite hobby has had a large impact on me personally. Gathering twelve ringers in a (generally) stuffy room has been, when not actually illegal, firmly discouraged by both church and state.

St Paul’s Cathedral has an “Ellacombe” installed on six of the bells – a system of ropes and chiming hammers that allows a single ringer to sound the bells. This is quite different from the usual way of ringing with rope and wheel, but has allowed the bells to continue to sound when Sunday services have been taking place. I was chiming for one of these services when Rosie Oliver happened to make a recording. Rosie is an audio producer and London explorer who organises The London Ear guided walk around the City of London.

Her recording follows; all mistakes are mine!

You can read more about this on her blog, including the following reflection:

In many ways chiming feels like any performance. Apprehension is supplanted by concentration: that sort of concentration where time starts to drift and other concerns fade away. Having worked as an organist these sensations certainly felt familiar, but chiming brings its own character. Bells are so much more audible than other instruments and the bells of St Paul’s even more so, but my experience is entirely disconnected from any “audience”. Hidden behind the walls of the ringing chamber I might have an audience of thousands, or of none.

After nervous glances at the clock it’s time to stop. The loneliness intensifies. The walls that divide me from the world used to be a welcome home for our band of ringers but now it is only I. The sound of the bells fades into a vacuum.

I don’t suppose I’ll be invited to become Poet Laureate any time soon!

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