A Ring of Bells
First published in The Gettysburg Review, issue 27.2 (Summer 2014), this essay won the 2014 Kay Levin Short Nonfiction Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers as well as a Pushcart Prize. It appears in The Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses, 2016 edition.
It is a frigid February night in snowbound Wisconsin, and the chamber choir I sing with is rehearsing Randall Thomson’s anthem “Alleluia,” which ends with a series of downward runs. They remind me of the sound of church bells in any English town on Sundays–those rills of notes spilling out, tumbling after one another down the scale, weaving in and out like dancers round the May pole, calling people to church for Matins, Eucharist, and Evensong, for weddings and funerals and holy days. “Alleluia, alleluia,” and I am taken back forty years to Shropshire: grass scent and thrush song.
The bells were ringing the day my siblings and I arrived in Ellesmere for the first time, in August, 1969, when I was eight years old. Our family’s new home, called “St. Mary’s Cottage,” was a rambling old house adjacent to the parish church, St. Mary’s, which was built by the Knights Hospitallers in the thirteenth century on a site where people had been worshipping for centuries. The town was founded by a Saxon chieftain on the edge of a mere and named after him: Elli’s Mere, Ellesmere. It lay on the border between England and Wales, on the edge of water, and our house, too, seemed to occupy a liminal space–in our case between secular and religious life. It was once part of church lands, and both the entrance to the church and the path to the vicarage lay right next to our back gate. In the churchyard, eighteenth-century gravestones covered with lichen listed at odd angles among the thick, tussocky grass and starry flowers of orange hawksbit.
Church bells punctuated our lives, doling out information and instructions, for the church clock tolled every hour. Eight bells meant it was time to jump out of bed and get ready for school. One bell meant it was lunchtime. Six bells, and it was time for Dad to switch on the evening news. Bells at 7:30 pm on a Friday meant the ringers were holding their weekly practice. In the evening, ten bells meant it was time to switch out the light. On New Year’s Eve, twelve strokes meant squeals, hugging, and one of the grownups popping a cork. Saturday bells signaled a wedding or a funeral.
Living so close to the church, I was soon drawn into its life. Because my mother helped “do” the flowers, we were often there at off hours, so it became familiar territory, an extension of St. Mary’s Cottage. While she busied herself cutting stems and arranging blooms in bricks of green Oasis floral foam, I would wander around, playing in the high-
I started taking organ lessons and would come in the evenings to practice, pulling stops so that the different voices would sound, my feet working the keys below me, sitting in a pool of yellow light in the dark transept. The organ was so much bigger than me, and so difficult to learn, with all the different keyboards and stops, but I loved the sound of the instrument more than any I had yet encountered. I felt a mixture of peace, happiness, and fear sitting there–joy at the music and fear of the looming dark spaces beyond the light. I was also afraid of the walk home through the dark churchyard, still enough of a child to be afraid of ghouls and ghosts rising from their graves, the lurking presence of beings from countless other centuries, the impenetrable dark of the country.
I was one of the first girls to sing in the choir; I was proud to be let into the vestry at the back of the church–a place off-limits to the congregation–and to don a wine-colored cassock and white surplice with the men and boys. I remember fighting attacks of the giggles during the sermon; once, before choir practice, I felt daring enough to climb the stairs to the high stone pulpit but was caught by the vicar and reprimanded terribly. I remember, too, smoothing the lilac print of my confirmation dress over my knees, and trying unsuccessfully to make sense of the gory business of eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. I loved the hymns and the Tudor language of the liturgy, even though some of the words–especially “womb,” “Virgin,” “flesh,” and “conceive”–made me squirm a little, seeming obscenely female and corporeal in that masculine, spiritual space.
The vicar of St. Mary’s was a stolid and humorless man called Reverend Norman Fenn. He rather liked the sound of his own voice intoning, and I couldn’t help admiring it too, since he got to use such lovely, weighty phrases. There was the opening prayer: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” as well as the confession of having “erred and strayed like lost sheep” because we were following the “devices and desires of our own hearts.” Midway through Holy Communion, in the Eucharistic prayers, Reverend Fenn’s sonorous voice would start to rise, like a jet taking off, until he arrived at the mystical commands: “Drink ye all of this: for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” My favorite part came just before people went up to the rail to take communion: “We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” It captured perfectly my own sense of being small and flawed despite all my attempts to be good, and my gratefulness at being allowed to participate, to be in the church and at the table.
Being present at all the services, I would see the bell ringers slipping into the back pews as the choir processed up the aisle to the Introit following the cross, the floor beneath our feet vibrating to the organ. They came in late because they had to ring right up until the service began, and it took them some time to get down from the tower. Around the time I was confirmed, at twelve, the ringers enquired if any of the choristers were interested in learning “the ropes.” They were in need of new recruits; the older members were dwindling, and there was a dearth of new blood to continue the tradition. I was tall and strong for my age, and curious about the origin of the sounds that were so entwined with my home life. I began taking bell-ringing lessons, and thus began my initiation into another world.
We are following a man who has turned the great, black iron key and swung the small door inward, and we are ascending the narrow spiral stairs, with their pale sandstone steps hollowed out by the passage of centuries of feet. There is a musty smell of old stone, and the surface of the wall is rough to the touch as we lean into it, circling upward. Halfway up, over the little four-petalled rose window with the blue Star of David, there is a flat landing, a wooden passageway from which we can look down into the church. Then we ascend still further to the ringing chamber with its one dusty window set small and low in the foot-thick stone walls. This chamber is halfway up the tower, over the nave.
We have gathered here to ring the bells: old Arnold Whitehead, canal worker and head ringer; Hugh Thomas, the soft-spoken farm forehand; his wife Pat, strong willed and stocky; Will Campbell-Wallis, the skinny mathematician at the local private school with his huge sideburns, bell-bottom jeans, and boundless enthusiasm; and three local youths who have faded now into anonymity in my mind. We stand around in a circle, a rope dangling from the ceiling in front of each of us. At first all eight bells will be hanging “down,” sleeping, so the fluffy red, blue, and white woolen grips called “sallies” are at roughly head height. We have to reach up to grasp them. Each bell has to be individually rung “up,” set in motion by pulling the sally harder and harder so that the bell swings back and forth in ever-increasing arcs until it comes to rest mouth up, balanced against its “stay,” a wooden bar at the top of the circle.
There are no carillons here, with their melodies tapped out by a carillonneur’s hammer on a set of fixed, unmoving bells. British bells are free–free to swing a great circle, from the up position round to the other side, then back again, with the clapper striking once on each downswing. Each bell is a giant pendulum that has to be controlled by a ringer, its live weight–anywhere from 150 pounds for the smallest treble bell to three or four tons for the giant tenor–falling, rising, pausing, falling, rising, pausing. You can’t see the bell–it is way above you in the louvered bell chamber. You have to control it by feel, by the counterweight of your own body, by the sensation you transmit to it and it transmits to you through the bell rope. A bell badly handled could swing wildly and break its stay, in a havoc of splintered wood. The rope could whip up or down and catch you and drag you up to the ceiling, knocking you out. Even when under control, the rope snakes up into the tower like a live thing. You have to work with its momentum, find the way to exert enough force to make the bell pause the length of time you want, and then fall again, in great arcs.
All of this takes years to learn. To make a bell ring is one thing, but to be able to control exactly when it sounds requires skill, strength, and good rhythm. Just to make a set of six to twelve bells ring a single downward scale with no clashes and equal gaps of a fifth of a second between each note requires exquisite timing and expertise. You need to be able to speed up or slow down as necessary, shortening the swing or holding the bell at balance.
My bell is number three, fairly light. Each bell has its own weight and character, and all but the most experienced ringers ring the same bell each time. It is like handling a horse. It takes about a year of practicing for several hours a week before you are allowed to ring on Sundays by yourself without anyone standing by. There is the conscious heave of effort with the shoulders and arms as you pull on the sally with both hands to set the bell in motion. The slap of the rope on the wooden floor as the bell swings down. The strain of reining it in exactly where you want it with your arms above your head as it reaches its peak, sensing when the bell will sound in your own body, wincing if you get the timing wrong, and it clashes with someone else’s, pulling it back down, braking it gradually as the sally comes up to waist height. The faces, the presences, the dry texture of the rope, the novice’s fear, the concentration, the old-timers’ calm. The dim interior, smelling of vanished centuries. My back is to the door. A stone bench is recessed into the wall behind me. Faces in a dream, a ritual, a practice both commonplace and arcane. The sound of the distant organ preludes coming up through your feet before the services.
Mr. Whitehead calls the order of the bells. We always begin and end with plain “Rounds” (12345678). Then comes the familiar “Queens” (13572468), and the weirder “Tittums” (15263748). Then there is “change ringing,” in which the head ringer changes the order of the bells by calling out individual permutations. If he calls “two to three,” bells two and three switch place in the scale, so that two follows three and 1234 becomes 1324. “Treble to three” means that one follows three, so that 1234 becomes 2314.
For special occasions like weddings or jubilees, and for holy days like Candlemas, Ash Wednesday, and Whitsun, we do something special: a “peal,” which involves following a “method.” The methods have esoteric names like “Plain Bob Minor” and “Grandsire Doubles.” In a method, the changes are not called out individually: each ringer studies and memorizes an algorithm, the pattern that his bell follows to advance toward the beginning of the line and go to the back. The bells weave in and out like the English country dance called “Strip the Willow.” A quarter peal lasts forty-five minutes, and a full peal lasts three hours, during which time no bell ever strikes in the same consecutive order, ringing thousands upon thousands of changes.
Five minutes before the service, the bells are “rung down,” so that their wide mouths and clappers are safely hanging downward. Then number four is chimed as a warning to latecomers. Its rope goes all the way down into the nave of the church where it is pulled three times by the altar boy during Holy Communion when the host is being raised. Out in the fields, you can hear the three strokes of the Sanctus bell and know. For funerals, we put felt hats on the clappers and ring the bells muffled. They speak dimly then, as if underwater.
My ten years of bell ringing precede and include my years of teenage love, of anorexia and clinical depression, of losing my virginity and my faith. The bells woke me every day and kept vigil in the long nights of my illness when I lay unable to sink into sleep. The bell chamber became a refuge where I could sink into rhythm and concentration and briefly escape the obsessions that tortured me. Not one of the ringers commented on the mass of Band-Aids occasionally visible under my long sleeves, where I had sliced my forearms with a razor. They kept mercifully mum as I became thinner and thinner, eventually losing half my weight; they did not know when I was dizzy and weak from vomiting, nor when my depression was so deep that I could barely speak. There, I didn’t have to speak. All I had to do was show up, hang onto my rope, and sound my bell on time. Ringing anchored me physically, acting as a literal lifeline to a community of music making and faith at a time of radical isolation and silence in my life. I was one note in a communal instrument speaking to the town.
In my late teens, the gaps between reason and Christian dogma became too wide and too numerous for me to bridge any longer. Struggling to forge a healthier relationship to my own body, I couldn’t accept what I saw as the denial of the human body in the Virgin birth, the magical resurrection of the dead, and the fact that torture and human sacrifice were supposed to redeem us. In this time of growing alienation, it was the bells, and music, that kept me coming to church. My routine of Friday night practices, Sunday morning and evening ringing, and studying for peals became an essential part of the fabric of my life, something that grounded me, gave me a sense of belonging to something larger than myself, something that was at once part of ancient tradition and the everyday life of Ellesmere. On Ascension Day, forty days after Easter, the bell ringers and the vicar and the church wardens and choristers climb the spiral stairs beyond the ringing chamber, past the bells and up onto the tower itself, and we sing hymns looking out over the village, the Shropshire countryside, the Mere, the old-people’s home, the Tudor coaching inn and the Georgian houses and the eighteenth-century canal.
“Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be. . . .” Beneath us lie the Saxon preaching cross; the crusader’s sandal and the vial of earth from the Holy Land in a glass reliquary; the rood screen; the Queen of Heaven with baby Jesus on one arm and the orb in her left hand; the Scrivener with his inkhorn and little dog; and the alabaster effigies of Lord and Lady Kynaston, lying side by side on their tomb, hacked at by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War in the seventeenth century, with the little statues of their seven children kneeling mutilated round them.
“All glory, laud and honor, to thee, redeemer, king. . . .,” we sing to the landed gentry, the Jebbs and the Cholmondeleys and the Mainwarings; to the pinched children on the council-house estate, to the laborers drinking Wem Ales and smoking Woodbines in the Bridgewater Arms, the Red Lion, the Black Lion, the Sun, the Swan, and the White Hart; to the mothers cooking Sunday roasts; to the lines of washing in the gardens; to the Welsh hills rising green and vertiginous twelve miles away, with their lambs and their slag heaps; to the primary school with its silver-haired headmaster; to the raw teenagers at the Secondary Modern; to the well-heeled boys at Ellesmere College, where my father works; to the three ruddy butchers in their striped canvas aprons, in their separate shops, wiping their large hands among the carcasses and strings of sausages; to the ladies in the market on Tuesdays with their blocks of crumbly Cheshire cheese, their muddy potatoes and lettuces and leeks, their Cox’s Orange Pippins in brown paper bags; to the greengroceries, where tulips and daffodils and freesias stand in buckets, and avocados are beginning to make their exotic appearance.
“Jesus shall reign where’er the sun doth his successive journeys run. . . .,” we sing to the sleepy, tea-colored canal meandering toward Llangollen and to the dour fishermen on its banks with their umbrellas and Wellington boots; to cattle standing hock-deep in mire around five-barred gates; to stiles and sheep; to the Working Men’s Club; to the red Royal Mail postboxes bearing the embossed crown and the letters EIIR; to bluebells in the coppices; to the newsagents with their dirty magazines on the top shelf and the Shropshire Star and jars of Gobstoppers, Pear Drops, and Licorice Allsorts; to the greasy fish-and-chip shop; to the Indian takeout and its poppadoms; to the furniture-stripping shop and the opticians and the ironmongers and the dairy; to the dusty ladies’ clothing store and the haberdashers; to the youths lounging on the steps of the Old Town Hall, fags drooping from their lips, who eye me up and down with furtive hostility and whistle like wolves; to the watch mender and the jeweler; to Rowlands, the chemists with the peroxide blonde lady whose skin is orange from tanning booths and whose made-up eyes are hard; to the postcards at Fred Roberts that say, “Welcome to Ellesmere.”
“Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His throne. . . .,” we sing to the bank clerks at Lloyds and NatWest; to the two policemen living at the station where I watch Princess Anne’s wedding with my friend; to the New Town Hall and the roundabout; to the deep, secret ruts of Love Lane and Sandy Lane; to the farms with their sheepdogs; to the smell of coal fires burning in the grates of all the houses; to the uprooted train tracks, reverting back to field; to the Canada geese by the Mere who have eaten all the grass; to the herons in the heronry; to the grimy old lorries thundering through the village on the main road to Shrewsbury under the walls of the church; to the castle whose motte is now a bowling green; to the garage on the corner that sells petrol and Walker’s Salt ’n Vinegar crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate bars; to the Convent of the Poor Clares, silent by the canal, with its vegetable garden and its invisible cloistered nuns; to the Methodists in their chapel down on Scotland Street; to the Cottage Hospital and the doctor’s surgery; to the war memorial with its withered wreaths of poppies. “His the sceptre, His the throne. . . .”
On Sunday evenings, after we finish ringing, I slip into Evensong at the back of the shadowy church, just as the vicar is intoning “O Lord, open thou our lips.” I know the service by heart, so as I am walking into a pew, I join the first response: “And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” I find the service comforting, especially the beautiful collects: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. . . .” I can still recite the collect toward the end, with its plea for “rest and quietness”: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness. . . .” The Nunc dimittis, Simeon’s words at the center of the service, also reenacts the granting of peace after a lifetime’s wait: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.” I always imagined the old man’s amazement, recognizing the six-week-old Jesus in the Temple as the Messiah; his tears of sudden joy, gratitude, and relief. The words transmit a sense of release, consolation, and safety that I take with me into my week.
Evensong ends with one of my favorite hymns:
The day thou gavest, Lord, has ended
Afterward, the ringers and I walk out of the church, through the cemetery, and push open the heavy iron gate with its black bars and gold rosette. We cross the cobblestone alley, they to their cars and me to go up the gravel driveway of St. Mary’s Cottage: home. The last thing I hear before falling asleep will be the sound of the bell in the tower, striking the hour: a link to the church’s ongoing presence as I slip between worlds.