The bells of Saint Wilfrid

Ripon Cathedral: image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Ripon Cathedral: image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Bell ropes ready for action.
Bell ropes ready for action.

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.

Getting started.
Getting started.

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.

Keeping the rhythm going.
Keeping the rhythm going.

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.

Bell in the belfry, almost fully turned.
Bell in the belfry, almost fully turned.

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.

A  harmony of bells.
A harmony of bells.

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.

22 thoughts on “The bells of Saint Wilfrid”

  1. ……..wonderful – I always did like bellringing very much – the more I read about Ripon, the more ….??? thanks, annaxx

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  2. How fabulous! I can only imagine what a great visit this must’ve been–a feast for the senses, since it seems to have been so intense. You’ll never listen to bells pealing in the same way again!

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  3. Not really a fan of church bells especially as broadcast on Radio 4 on a Sunday evening/Monday morning, they all sound the same to me. However some years ago in Amsterdam we happened upon the infrequent opening of the bell tower in a church and climbed a very rickety stairway to watch the man playing the instrument which rang the bells. He played requests!!

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    1. Don’t like church bells? Oh, I think they’re just wonderful, especially at a bit of a distance as the sound wafts across town. And an instrument playing the bells? that’s just cheating!

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  4. I too had the same stereotype of a bell-ringer so it’s interesting to hear that it attracts all sorts. I too love the sound of bells peeling across a community although the thought of a three hour concert is a bit much!

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  5. I’ve been up several bell towers and always thrilling. Our local church practices on a Wednesday (actually I’ve come to the conclusion all bell practice is on a Wednesday) and if the weather is right we can sit in the garden and hear the peals. I just love them.

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  6. I recommend Dorothy L Sayers Nine Tailors….it will explain change ringing, introduce people to the fens and a pretty good mystery as well.
    I have much more understanding and appreciation of English bell ringing since first reading the book in the 60s…
    I wish someone responsible for the tv mystery movies would come up with a plot where a young woman is travelling around England trying to find places that locations in various classis British mystery tales (D.L. Sayers and the other wonderful notables) and then encounter mysteries of her own…
    I could even see her arguing with someone about which is the better Miss Marple…with brief film references inserted in the story…
    and if I win the lottery perhaps I can afford a house in Aude or Ariege AND a house that looks like the honeymoon cottage in Busman’s Honeymoon…
    Thank you so much for sharing your new excursions and adventures…

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  7. Margaret, just found this and thank you for giving us such a positive write up. Really glad you enjoyed your visit and our enthusiasm came across. We are always delighted to show visitors around the tower and give a taster of what we are up to on wednesday nights and sunday mornings, , if anyone one here would like a visit please make contact.

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  8. Please feel free to get in touch in the future, Given this is publc probably the easiest way is via the cathedral office, details on the cathedral website. Be very pleased to you again.. Thanks

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  9. It was lovely to read this article. I learnt to ring at Ripon back in 1978 when there were just 10 bells, and then had a long gap from ringing when we moved away from there. Within the last year, I have come back to ringing as our tower has had a new ring of bells installed, and it’s lovely to be ringing again. I hope at some point that I may be able to get over to Ripon, and ring those wonderful bells again.

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    1. Oh, I hope so too! It looks a great pursuit, and I’m quite tempted. You’re lucky to have had the experience of ringing several different sets of bells, but I bet Ripon’s ringers would welcome you back with enthusiasm.

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    2. Debbie, it would be great to see you at Ripon sometime in the future. You will be very welcome indeed and there are still a few ringers from 1978 ringing with us. Where do you ring now ? Martin

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      1. Hi Martin. I now ring at Dumfries, where, as you probably know, we have just had a new ring of 8 bells installed. I still have happy memories of learning to ring at Ripon, and would certainly like to ring there again next time I’m in the area. Thanks for your kind offer.

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  10. Hello Debbie, Please feel free to come alone next time you are down. Sundays 9.30 – 10:30 or wed 7:30 – 9:00 for practice (access via north transept door). Look forward to seeing you.I gather Dumfries are a good ring. Martin

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