Going like the clappers with the bell ringers at St Michael’s church, St Albans
PUBLISHED: 12:00 06 June 2010
St Albans: a city rich in heritage just waiting to be explored. But if you’re not a tourist and are still in the prime of youth, is there actually anything to do here except go to the pub? I’ve lived in St Albans for my full 23 years of life, and it’s about time I found something fresh and fun to do with my evenings.
So I’ve set myself a mission: to find interesting clubs, classes and societies in the city, to go along and get stuck in and then to report back to other restless souls in St Albans.
EVERY Sunday morning at 8.55am on the dot, I hear the bells of St Michael’s Church ringing. They are very often my wake-up call (it beats a blaring radio) and I’ve always wondered who gives up their Sunday lie-in to make music for a sleepy St Albans.
It seems we have The St Michael’s Society of Change Ringers to thank and following a write-up about their sponsored quarter peal for Haiti, I was invited to a practice session one Wednesday evening. With my musical friend Juliet in tow, I bounded off to the bell tower after work, ready to make some serious music.
As we ascended the narrow, spiralling staircase up to the ringing chamber, I was reminded of a particularly gruesome Midsomer Murders episode, where the parish church bell ringers are bumped off one by one – and on the eve of a very important bell-ringing competition, shock horror!
But tower secretary Alison, who has been ringing for over 10 years, assured me that there have been no murders as of yet and all eight or so members of the society get on like a house on fire. Reassured, Juliet and I followed Alison and her husband Neil up to the highest point of the tower to check out the bells.
Made of ‘bell metal’ (an alloy of bronze, copper and tin), St Michael’s Church boasts eight bells including two shiny new ones and Neil told us that their four oldest were a staggering 271 years old. Goodness knows how many tunes they have seen, but certainly enough to have the local Georgian pub, The Six Bells, named after them.
Back in the ringing chamber, Juliet and I both had a go at sounding the treble – the lightest and highest note bell – and I was shocked at how heavy it was.
Apparently it’s all about technique, but despite my best efforts I could only muster a faint tinkle. Juliet, a gifted musician who has even mastered the didgeridoo, was far better and even had a go on the booming 650kg tenor, the biggest bell of all.
Bell ringers don’t use music; they read sheets of funny mathematical squiggles instead, which indicate when and where each bell should ring. It looked like a game of snakes and ladders to my eye, but the experts have it down to a fine art and their sponsored Haiti quarter peal, for example, involved making over 1,000 bell changes in under an hour.
With names like Cambridge Surprise, St Clements and Reverse Canterbury Pleasure, reading the society’s playlist for the evening was akin to choosing a drink off a fancy cocktail menu, minus the hefty price tag (it’s completely free of charge to bell ring with the society).
The melodies were so rhythmic and soothing that Juliet and I almost fell into a trance sitting on the sidelines.
Our sleepiness was even despite the intermittent “two to three” or “three to four” yells from the bell-ringing conductor, whose job it is to tell the other ringers how to vary their order from row to row. This is one tricky hobby and I was struck by the looks of determined confidence on everyone’s faces.
For budding musicians eager to learn a new (albeit giant) instrument, The St Michael’s Society of Change Ringers is the place to be. They are determined to keep old traditions alive and, more importantly, I am not sure I would ever wake up on a Sunday morning if it wasn’t for them.
When? Practice every Wednesday evening for service on Sunday morning;
Where? St Michael’s Church, St Albans;
How much? Free;
Contact: Alison on 01727 856845 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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