Despite attempts to discourage them, a number of pigeons make their home in the tower at Hexham Abbey. Here is what one observant pigeon might have witnessed last night…
It is Thursday evening and my peace and quiet is yet again interrupted by the deafening noise of the bells ringing. These Hexham Abbey Ringers are such an active ringing guild I really don’t know why I stay in this tower with the constant racket and the ever present danger of getting smacked by a 2 ton bell swinging by at incredible speeds. Most of the regulars are here tonight – a good turnout it appears, probably about 15 humans. The practice gets underway at 7:30pm and tonight I heard them saying they are preparing for a striking contest this Saturday near Durham. Since I’ve been living in this tower for sometime I have learned that means a contest to see which ringing band can ring through complicated bell changes with the least number of errors. I am proud that my hometown ringers won this contest last year and I hope they bring the trophy back again.
But what is this? A new face? A tiny yellow Peugeot pulls up, so small I can’t see how they managed to make it four doors, and out climbs a tall lanky guy who I’ve not seen here regularly. Does he know how to get up to the tower during the practice? The door on the ground floor is locked. Let’s see if he knows the secret.
He does! He comes up to the door and reaches up to the door frame to push a small, unlabeled doorbell button. I hear the familiar chime of the doorbell in the ringing room. It startles one of the ringers who is sitting out intently watching others ringers practice for the contest. She gets up and reaches for a small, shiny key that I’ve often coveted for my nest. Then she slips out of the room, up a small spiral staircase, and opens a tiny trapdoor onto the edge of the roof of the abbey. It is good thing she isn’t afraid of heights! From the roof she tosses the key down, down, down onto the Abbey lawn where the new man collects it.
He seems to know what he is doing, or pretends like he does at least. He unlocks the door, closes it behind him, and begins the journey up into the tower. He first climbs the ancient staircase in the Abbey sanctuary up to the second floor landing. From there he opens a small wooden door signed, “Ringers In” and then turns and closes it behind him. He then climbs a tiny spiral staircase struggling to avoid hitting his head on the steps as he goes up. He reaches a passageway and joins the heating pipes and thousands of footsteps before him that have crossed the tiny walkway along to the tower. He is obviously still new because he pauses halfway along to look out over the open railing at the dark, quiet, and majestic abbey sanctuary which now lies below him.
He can hear the ringing bells louder now I’m sure – they are deafening me! He makes his way to a second spiral staircase in the tower and climbs the final steps into the ringing room where he sees 10 ringers calmly concentrating on pulling their ropes in a complicated pattern and order. He plops down onto an old pew to sit and watch, hands the key back, and rests from the effort of climbing the all those steps.
I wonder what he is up to? Now that he is closer I do recognize him. He has come a couple of times before to watch the ringers, and probably as much for the conversation and pint of beer that they enjoy together after ringing at a local pub. But tonight his face has a different look about it. Is it fear?
After a few minutes the active ringers take a break. The loop up their ropes in a specific way to keep them from trailing on the floor and step back to chat with each other. One of the most experience ringers, a man they call Andy, then gestures to the tall new man to come and join him at bell #4. I think the new man is going to try to ring it! This is going to be amusing. It always enjoyable to watch new people try to ring bells. They think it looks so easy and then find…
He seems to know a little bit about how to hold the rope and where to put his hands on the sally, the cloth covered part of the rope. He must have had a lesson or two already. But I’ve never heard the bell ring before so he must have done it with the clapper immobilized. This will be his first real ring I’d guess.
He reaches up and grasps the sally. Then gingerly pulls down on it. As he pulls I look over and see the bell move from its resting position with the mouth up and begin to rapidly pick up momentum as it swings down and head back up to the 12 o’clock position again. I can tell right away he didn’t pull down on the sally correctly as the bell doesn’t have quite enough pull to make it all the way back up to the top. He is probably afraid of holding on too long because he’s had his hand burned by the rope as it suddenly jumps up at a certain point when the bell swings around. It has rung once, and now twice, as it comes back down again from about 11 o’clock and heads down and up towards 1 o’clock position. But he has a problem already because the bell is falling – it isn’t making the full rotation. So he has to pull on the rope much more quickly and harder than he should. And the bell is ringing faster than it should. I look out the window and I’m sure I see a passerby wince as they wonder why the bell is tolling so rapidly as if it is in some kind of race against time.
But he keeps trying. He gets is going a bit better for a few rings and then things kind of fall apart again. I hear the excellent teacher say, “Don’t look up.” Then, “keep your hands together.” “It is falling again, pull it harder.” “Not too hard, you’ve hit the stay.” (I see he has tipped the bell a bit too far this time and it gone past the correct 12 o’clock position). “The rope is slipping through your left hand, move it up.” “Pull straight down, not out in front.” “It is falling again and ringing too fast.” “Okay, okay, give it me now.” And mercifully the teacher takes the bell and with one stroke has it back under control. I don’t know why my heart is beating as hard as the learner but it certainly made me nervous to watch!
The other ringers have all been circled around watching the newbie. I’m sure that helped his nerves! They makes lots of friendly comments about how well he is coming along but everyone knows that he has a LONG way to go! After all, some of the ringers have been at it for forty, fifty, even sixty years!
The newbie sits down ashen faced, sweating, and breathing hard. Telltale signs of adrenaline rushing through his system.
During the course of the rest of the evening they give him two more chances to make a racket with the bell. There are moments where he seems to manage but much of the time he is clearly trying to keep all the different parts of the ringing straight in his head and not panic – hard to do with a massive bell swinging up and down over and over. I’d say he had the bell under control maybe a third of the time and the bell was controlling him the rest. All I know is that I am going to stay away from that thing when he tries to ring it!
But as they close the practice by hoisting all the ropes back up so they can’t accidentally be touched and head out to the Globe for a drink, the newbie seems pleased. He has officially rung his first real bell in one of the finest towers in northern England.
– The Pigeon of Hexham Tower