Liverpool’s bells

Have just returned from a weekend ringing tour with FODS up in Liverpool. Whilst there were four nice churches visited, really the object for me was a chance to ring at the open practice at the Cathedral. With the heaviest and highest church bells in the world, the Anglican Cathedral of Liverpool is a sort of Mecca for ringers. Many of my ringing friends have spoken about the experience of ringing there, and so I was keen to experience it for myself.

The FODS have toured Liverpool once before – in the late 90s, I think – and when I went then, I certainly went into the cathedral, and was bowled over by the sheer size and scale of the immense edifice. But I hadn’t before made it up the tower. Given that it’s one of the largest cathedrals in the world, and has a very high, very large tower, it’s a bit of a relief that there are lifts, rather than making you climb a thousand stairs. That relief is slightly short lived when you realise that each lift car can carry a maximum of three people and there are at least 30 of you hoping to attend practice. The locals were full of stories that the lift recently broke down, and there are signs everywhere vaguely near the lift in a very simple pictogram to reinforce the limit of three.

I rode up the lift with two women, one a ringer of some standing in Liverpool and the other a complete novice who had never rung before, but was interested in seeing what it was like. In my pains to explain that Liverpool Cathedral was in so many ways a unique ringing experience, and therefore maybe not the best place to get a first taste, I fear I came across a little unwelcoming and had to mend bridges later on in the evening.

Eventually the lift takes you to level 8, the ringing chamber, which is enormous, and a little dark. There are windows, but they are small and high up. There are massive girders throughout the room holding the tower together, each with a little staircase over them so that you can circulate. And on the floor there are names painted at angles, which I think referred to other towers around the world. (I think these were the remnants of an art installation, reviewed here.

A local ringer started the practice by asking for shows of hands of those who had never rung at Liverpool Cathedral before. Since the bells are so heavy, and the sound so distant, they place rooky ringers carefully amongst more experienced ones. Even if you are a ringer of some standing, these are a special challenge. They’re also very loud, and audible a long way away so there is an even greater responsibility than normal not to make a hash of things.

I got to ring in the first set of rounds and call-changes, and was asked to ring the 3rd, which means the third heaviest out of the main ring of 12. There’s an accidental bell that lets you ring another scale, and a monster of a 14-ton bell not attached to the usual wheel, and rung only on special occasions.

To ring, you need to stand on a special structure built where the ropes fall from the ceiling, which raises all the ringers four feet off the ground. It’s a sort of stage, with a circular, stained pit in the middle. I rang, more or less uneventfully apart from when distracted and thinking I was ringing the 2 instead of the 3 moved in the wrong direction at a call. Despite the volume, the bells are hard to hear in the ringing chamber, as they are quite a way away and separated by thick concrete floors.

My ringing stint over, I wandered around the ringing chamber a bit more, took some cameraphone pictures and videos (which I will add into this post when they have uploaded to Flickr) before my battery died. After a while, I noticed people were grabbing ear defenders and heading back to the lift. It turned out they were going to watch the bells from above, rather than from below. I grabbed a pair of defenders from the bag and joined the lift queue.

When you get out, here’s what you see:

Liverpool bells

(photo credit: That_James)

That’s an extraordinary sight, for so many reasons.

Firstly – these are enormous bells, amongst the largest in the world. Almost all of them are significantly bigger than people. The largest, central bell weighs 14 tons, and is surrounded by bells from 9 cwt to 4 tons. And yet they are dwarfed by the space they are in, in this huge lantern at the top of the huge tower astride the huge cathedral. Most other church towers could fit into the bell chamber many times over. The space is so big, and so open to the elements that it is not unusual for clouds and rain to form in the space. The stain in the pit below comes from rainwater collecting in the mouths of bells and bucketing down on unwary ringers below. NB, in the photo, the bells are raised for ringing, with their mouths facing up. When I was there, they were being swung, so each of the bells around the edge was turning full circle.

Secondly – the design of the frame holding the bells. It’s concrete! In most other churches, it’s wood or the wood has been replaced this century with a metal frame. This beautiful industrial concrete setting for the bells means they can be arranged in a perfect circle, rather than meshed together in two layers, bells facing in all directions and jigsawed together in complicated patterns, as is usual. But how did they get the concrete up there? It must surely have been poured in situ, rather than cast below and hoisted up? The industrial machinery reminded me a little of my primary-school trip to a nuclear power station. We were trouped around to look at distant concrete machinery through safety-glass windows. Similar vast spaces applied.

I was so bowled over by the sight that I beetled back down the lift and handed my ear defenders to the woman who’d never rung before and sent her up to see it.

Although the ringing chamber is not normally open to the public, the bell chamber forms part of the Tower Experience, which is open to all visitors. If you get the chance, go and see it.

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