Last week, I got the chance to climb the bell tower at Ripon Cathedral. How could I refuse? Hearing the full peal of bells joyously announcing Sunday worship, and at other times too, is one of the privileges of being near Ripon.
It was Wednesday evening. That’s when the team of ringers always meet to practise and learn new changes. I knew bells were rather heavy things, and imagined that tugging on the bell-ropes to make them chime must be a young person’s hobby – preferably a burly, muscular young person. But no. Bell-ringers are young, old, male, female, slim and rangy, tall and chunky, small and wiry. All that’s needed is an enthusiasm for this particularly British pursuit.
It was a fine thing to watch every member of the team as they got each bell going. That did look hard work. Holding the rope high above their heads, each ringer tugged to bring it low down, again and again, till the bell had acquired its own satisfying momentum: till indeed, it was turning so far that the bell reached the top of its 360 degree swing, paused momentarily, and could be controlled. Each bell sounds a different note in the scale, with each ringer sounding his or her bell in harmony with the rest.
There may have been bells in Ripon cathedral since the 13th century. Over the centuries, bells have been replaced or recast. The bell tower itself has been refurbished several times to replace ancient, beetle-infested timbers. By the early 20th century, the cathedral at Ripon acknowledged that its bells were no longer really doing a great job, so in 1932, ten of them were recast by John Taylor and Co. of Loughborough – one of only two bell foundries left in the country. Three more bells were added in 2007/8. At the same time as the main recasting, the bell tower was strengthened with steel and concrete. Since the heaviest bell (and it’s one of a team of 13) weighs in at one and a quarter tons, a good strong and safe bell tower seems essential.
It was a wonderful thing to watch the ringers working in rhythmic harmony (pull, pause, pause, pull), but what made the evening even more special was the opportunity to climb the bell tower itself. We had to put on thick ear protectors. Then we climbed the twisting narrow stone stairs, with almost impossibly far-apart treads, to find ourselves on what amounted to a walkway around the majestically swinging, harmoniously clanging quite enormous bells. We felt the tower shudder and sway and assumed it was our own fantasy. No, apparently it really does move with the momentum of all those bells. Despite the ear protectors, our ears felt sore from the auditory assault. Eyes and ears feasted on those bells swinging, sounding and reverberating.
Reluctantly, we ventured down the stairway once more. The ringers were well into their rhythm now, guided by the somewhat arcane instructions of their leader, which meant absolutely nothing to us. But I can see the attraction of being part of such a well structured and purposeful team, using skills that have changed little over the centuries. I can understand why they like occasionally to give themselves challenges such as ringing a full three-hour peal, why they welcome visiting bell-ringers, why they enjoy the chance themselves to ring different bells in different churches. And why, apparently, at the end of a hard-working practice, they like nothing more than to get down to the local pub and sink a well-earned pint.
Thanks, North Stainley Women’s Institute, for organising this visit, and to the bellringers of the cathedral for allowing us a glimpse of their Wednesday evening practice.