The Ancient Art of Change Ringing at The Bell Tower, Perth
In central Perth a unique and unmistakable tower of glass and copper rises majestically above the Swan River. This modern landmark is home to the time-honoured tradition of change ringing. A recent visit gave me the opportunity to become a bell-ringer myself.
Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns called “changes”.
Change ringing differs from many other forms of campanology in that no attempt is made to produce a conventional melody.
Seeing an open door with a notice stating “Staff Only”, I of course had to have a quick nosy. I was caught straight away by a small woman who ushered us quickly into the room. “Are you English?” she asked, presumably guessing from our accents. She then asked where exactly, to which Zach replied, “Swansea.” “That’s in Wales, not England,” she shook her head, obviously disgusted that we didn’t know our own country’s geography. Zach tried to explain himself but she hurriedly continued on unperturbed in her friendly bossy manner. She ordered somebody over to take our photo and they quickly obliged, while I fumbled about in my bag trying to find my phone. She manhandled me in place next to one of a number of ropes hanging down around the edges of the room, instructing Zach to hold the next rope. “Hold but don’t pull, not for the photo!” I had to smile that we were documenting our experience of pretending to ring bells. I was half expecting to be ushered straight out the door as soon as the photo was taken, so quickly this woman was paced. Luckily she allowed us to actually ring the bells, after watching a demonstration from another befuddled tourist. “Don’t let go!” she warned me. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I let go of the rope, would I break the bell? Maybe the rope would start flying around, and hurt somebody? She sounded quite serious with the warning so I decided not to test my theories out. I pulled down on the rope, it was much heavier than I expected and the bell above rang out. Next the rope pulled back up, nearly being yanked out of my grip. It took a bit of effort to hold on. The bells above pealed as we all repeatedly pulled down on our respective ropes in turn. Before I knew it my bell ringing experience was over and I was ushered out of the room to explore the rest of the bell tower at a much more leisurely pace.
Another few flights of stairs up, I found the bells we had been ringing, known as the Swan Bells. Of this set of 18 bells, 12 were gifted from the historic St-Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London to the state of Western Australia as part of the 1988 Australian bicentenary celebrations. The other 6 have been cast more recently.
At the top of the tower we emerged to a fantastic view over the Swan River on one side and the city of Perth on the other. Check out The Bell Tower website for timings of demonstrations with one of their fantastic volunteers. There’s more to this ancient art than meets the eye, or the ear, so it’s well worth a visit.