Desiree Artesi Philip Petchey, the first question that springs to mind is, why bell ringing?
Philip Petchey I’ve been ringing bells from a very young age, as did my father and elder brother before me. As a teenager, every other weekend my friends and I would go off on our bicycles into the Oxfordshire countryside, look at lots of wonderful churches, ring the bells, and then go back and have a meal together. In that way, it was not only fun but also a great team and community event. I still make time to ring for wellbeing reasons -- not just because it is relaxing but it’s also a source of intellectual satisfaction. It’s best when I achieved some good striking using a complicated method.
DA Are bell ringers a friendly bunch? Can you just go up to a tower and join in?
PP Very friendly. Well, first you need to introduce yourself. They will ask ‘Are you a ringer?’ and then ‘What you ring?’ You explain your skills and they say ‘Please, catch hold.’ If you sing in a choir, you are tied to the choir with which you sing, but if you are a bell ringer, you can ring anywhere.
DA For what purposes are bells rung?
PP It’s historical, and goes back in its current form to the 18th century. They call people within earshot of the bell to worship. Bell ringers today are from all walks of life which makes it particularly special.
DA Any there any similarities between the camaraderie surrounding bell ringing and that of the Bar?
PP Barristers travelling to any court in England and Wales are welcomed by fellow members of the Bar irrespective of whether they are known to the local Bar or not. Amongst bell ringers, there is that wonderful sense of community which means that a bell ringer can turn up at any tower and is immediately welcomed. Long may both continue that tradition.
DA How difficult is it to do? Do you need a good ear?
PP Most of the bell towers in England ring ‘methods’. This involves the sequence of the bells changing according to a pre-ordained pattern or ‘method’. It thus requires a degree of concentration; something with which barristers are not unfamiliar. It requires memorising lines – barristers need a good memory, but I don’t know if it is the same part of the brain that they use! Not surprisingly, you do not need a good ear. Most ringers ring using ear and eye together to ensure that the bells are evenly spaced – but there are a number of ringers who are blind and ring superbly by ear alone. Ultimately, it’s a sense of rhythm that counts.
DA When do you find time to ring? I hear you’ve rung for the Diamond Jubilee, royal weddings and other civic occasions.
PP Yes, but more generally it’s twice on Sundays and two practices during the week. I ring at St Mary’s in Woodford and St John’s in Loughton, as well as at Barking and Chigwell from time to time. We try to ring for most important national occasions. A recent highlight was the national effort to have all the bells ring at 12.30 on Remembrance Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. At Loughton it was particularly poignant because one of the ringers there was killed in the First World War.
DA Anthony Hughes, tell us how bell ringing came into your life?
Anthony Hughes I was introduced to it when I was about 13 years old in my local village church. I then left it alone when I went to university but picked it up again once I married and settled in another village. That is the good thing about bell ringing; you can pick it up at any time. It’s a way of doing something in the community, which is also enjoyable, clubbable and quite a pleasure. Bell ringing helps me to relax. I also hugely enjoy the camaraderie because you can drop into a tower when visiting a village on holiday, for example, and you would be welcomed.
DA When do you find time to ring?
AH I’m not as serious a ringer as others, who devote quite a lot of time travelling the country to ‘collect’ different towers. I only occasionally visit other towers. The village where I ring is quite a cohesive place and the church is at the centre. The tower only has six bells; six being fairly standard for a village. I ring most Sundays for 40 minutes before the service. I especially enjoy ringing for weddings. I would describe myself as an elementary ‘change-ringer’ [ringing of sets of church bells or handbells in a constantly varying order].
"Barristers travel to any court in England and Wales and are welcomed... irrespective of whether they are known to the local Bar or not. Amongst bell ringers, there is that wonderful sense of community which means that a bell ringer can turn up at any tower and is immediately welcomed. Long may both continue that tradition."
DA You clearly enjoy doing things in teams.
AH Yes, one of the appealing things is that you are doing it in combination with others. I also picked rowing up later in life and row in a recreational eight. It’s a huge pleasure if you are properly coordinated and very rocky if you are not. The same is true of ringing; the pleasure is in doing it consistently and together so that the sound is regular.
DA How important is it in this profession to find an activity that allows ‘switch off time’?
AH Very. Whilst recreational, it does requires concentration, and a bit of [physical] effort – you feel the bell through the rope. I also spend an inordinate amount of time marching behind a variety of motorised gardening equipment. Again, it’s a rather nice physical effort which produces pretty patterns and gives one the ability to switch off. Your mind will often wander [back to work] but it is more difficult if you are engaged in a hobby which requires immediate concentration.
DA Mark Herbert, when did you start ringing?
Mark Herbert I started ringing when I was about 12 years old. My headmaster was a keen ringer himself and encouraged us to pursue activities unconnected with work. So I rang at a local church. At my next school there were no bells so I stopped but took it up again at university. I now ring every week at my local church in Islington. I ring change-ringing and I ring hand bells.
DA Which is more difficult? Hand bells or change-ringing?
MH With hand bell ringing, you ring two bells and it requires virtually total concentration because you cannot start thinking, ‘What should I cook for dinner tonight?’ So you completely cut out work from your mind. It can still be quite complicated with change-ringing, but less so.
DA I hear you’re the leader of a band?
MH Yes, a group of bell ringers is referred to as a ‘band’ and I sometimes conduct. The conductor calls out instructions (‘bobs’, ‘singles’ and changes of method) and acts as the leader of the band. As the conductor, I have to keep concentrating and know precisely whereabouts in the composition the ringing has got to and also try to get the ringing back on track when there has been a mistake. Traditionally this is done without a written score to look at. I also conduct peals and quarter peals. A peal is the ringing of the bells for between 2.5 hours and 3.5 hours. A quarter peal is between 40 and 50 minutes.
DA When do you find time to ring?
MH I ring for half an hour before regular church services. Ringing is really good for wellbeing. Sadly, because of other commitments I have not been ringing as much as I would like to and I am really missing it.
DA Would you recommend it to others?
MH It is not a spectator sport and is very much internal to the bell ringers. I’d say that a sense of rhythm is the most important quality required. There are ringers who are blind, or have one arm, or are in a wheelchair and so forth. It is a hobby which is extremely welcoming to all and I would highly recommend it.
DA Mark Ockelton, what drew you to the bells?
Mark Ockelton Like Philip and Mark [Herbert], I learned to ring from school age. My father was a ringer.
DA Do you ring regularly now?
MO I rang for many years but the profession got in the way. My day job sadly prevented me from ringing and I had not rung much for many, many years. Two weeks and three days before this interview, though, I walked into a tower in York and asked, ‘Can I join you?’ The person there said, ‘Yes, what is your name?’ When I replied, he said ‘Oh Mark Ockelton! Well, it’s a long time since we have seen you isn’t it?’ The last time I spoke to him must have been 35 years ago. Then the tower captain turned up and also remembered me – along with others whom I had not seen in many years. I was very struck and humbled by the level of community. Now I’ve started ringing again in York.
DA It sounds like you really missed ringing during those years?
MO Yes. I felt very deprived! The demands of judging and being barrister made it difficult to fit in. I firmly believe that one has to commit to ringing otherwise one will be letting your fellow bell ringers down. I do not believe that I would be of much use if I were only a holiday ringer, or had to ring on a Tuesday somewhere, and on a Wednesday somewhere else. One of the things about ringing is that there is a strong commitment to the other members of the band, and a strong ethos to turn up on time, and be relied on to do what ringing needs to be done.
DA Did you have to learn the skill all over again?
MO No. It is like riding a bicycle; you never forget.
DA Why do you think bell ringing has an appeal from a wellbeing point of view?
MO It is like a string quartet but everyone is doing the same thing in silence – other than the noise of the bells and the call of the conductor. A 12 bell peal will take well over three hours and all 12 of you must be concentrating for the whole time otherwise it will not work. There is some physicality involved – if the bell you are ringing is a ton and a half, there is quite a lot of effort required to keep the bell moving through a full circle for three hours through 5,000 changes. That is 5,000 pulls on that rope; 5,000 swings of a ton and a half in the course of those three hours. So although in one sense it may be relaxing, it also may not be quite so for the more serious end of bell ringing. What is without doubt is that in this scenario, there is a lot of concentration, and that forces the day job out of your mind – which from a wellbeing point of view is a good thing.
"However difficult or knotty your case is tomorrow, if you are ringing for 45 minutes the night before, you have to forget about it otherwise you will make mistakes."
DA Tell us about a memorable occasion whilst ringing.
MO I recall a memorable occasion when on my 19th birthday I rang with a fellow bell ringer who also celebrated his 99th birthday on the same day!
DA Douglas James, what’s the appeal of bell ringing?
Douglas James Three things, really: first it’s something that you can immerse yourself into that is not work, and requires concentration; second it’s really sociable; and third, it’s all about teamwork –you only ever sound good if you ring as a team.
DA How did you first get involved?
DJ I’d arranged for the bells to be rung in the church where I was getting married. It was in my wife’s home village and her house was within earshot of the church. We then moved to Camberwell in South East London, not far from a church. Remembering the bells on my wedding day, when I heard the Camberwell bells I thought I’ll just go and have a look at what’s going on, and I got into it that way.
DA So no one in your family rang bells?
DJ That is correct. I came to bell ringing purely out of liking the sound of the bells.
DA What do you like most about bell ringing?
DJ Bell ringers never turn anyone away – as I said it’s very sociable. It’s a popular past time, lots of people do it, but there is a sense that people are not doing it as often as they used to, or not starting as early as they used to, so ringers will bite your hand off if you turn up unannounced at a tower.
DA Tell us about your learning journey?
DJ I started learning in earnest in London for about two years. Then I plateaued for a while when I moved to a relatively small village in Kent – it had a church but we could really only ring simple stuff. So, although I have been ringing for eight years, I have only been learning for three.
DA How often do you ring?
DJ I am a church-goer so I ring for services when I can, but one of the beauties of bell ringing is that you can ring anywhere. Most villages have a church and more often than not, there will be bells in the tower. We often go on (pub and) ringing outings to various spots around the country and so I have rung in various places – Surrey, Suffolk, Sussex, Essex, Norfolk – just around and about really. I do not ‘tick off’ churches like some people do, but I try to ring at as many churches as possible.
DA Can you ring a bell alone?
DJ You can – but it sounds really mournful; think of a funeral. More bells sound jollier – six, eight or even more.
DA I have heard of people who can ring two bells at the same time. Can you?
DJ There are some exceptionally good people who can ring two bells at the same time (even when ringing complicated methods). Let’s just say I can’t!
DA Tell us about your band?
DJ In my home tower band [group of bell ringers], there is a gardener, a teacher, a banker, a librarian, someone who works in financial regulation, a former shipping broker, a property developer, an events organizer, and a youngster who is still at school and really into his computer games.
DA Have you rung for any memorable occasion?
DJ We rang for Remembrance Sunday on 11 November 2018 – we rang half-muffled, which sounds very powerful. I also ring for weddings as and when. I’ve also rung quarter peals [45 minutes of a method], tolerance of the neighbours permitting, but no peals [three hours].
DA How does ringing help you relax?
DJ You have to concentrate and that takes your mind off the day job of being a barrister. It allows you to genuinely immerse yourself and get absorbed, so that you can’t concentrate on anything else. I think there’s a genuine health benefit or wellbeing side – however difficult or knotty your case is tomorrow, if you are ringing for 45 minutes the night before, you have to forget about it otherwise you will make mistakes.
Desiree Artesi is a barrister at Thomas More Chambers, a diversity champion at the Bar, and a member of Counsel’s Editorial Board.
21stC appeal: Southwark cathedral bell tower is pictured above with the Shard in the background. In 2017 a major restoration of Southwark Cathedral’s bells was completed. See and hear the 12 Bells Project video