Maximus rock’n’roll

I met the dedicated campanologists of Melbourne and Sydney for the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age. It got a bit of an odd edit, so here’s the original…

There’s a whole ecosystem of intrigue up in the bell towers of our cathedrals. The campanologists of St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne and St Mary’s in Sydney lower down the ropes.

Wheeze up the last of the 53 steep spiral stairs at St Paul’s Cathedral on a Sunday evening and you’ll be repelled by a strange force field. As I squeeze into an alcove seat on the perimeter wall of the bell tower, the pressure is palpable.

A tight band of men and women in leisurewear. They bear expressions of furious concentration, zeroing in on one another and muttering darkly. The occasional order is barked. These change ringers of St Paul’s have just started their 30-minute service session and absolutely nothing is going to put them off their stroke.

In my alcove I keep both feet flat on the floor, knowing the consternation that a dangling foot can cause if it jiggles into someone’s peripheral vision. Unlucky amateurs have been known to be accidentally lassoed with bell ropes and hoisted at speed to the ceiling, whereupon they find out whether or not they can fit through a rope-sized hole into the belfry above. The answer has been known to come in the form of a shattered pelvis or broken arm.

No wonder bell towers inspire murder mysteries, from Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors to Midsomer Murders, to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Some wag has hung rubber bats from this particular belfry, but the joking around is designated until after-hours; every ringing is a public performance, after all. There’s extra pressure today, because a team of top-notch campanologists from the UK is visiting. Treasurer Calvin Chai, one of the youngest Melbourne band members at 35, says, “Ringing in some towers, you can literally feel your heart beating. I mucked up once and there was silence. Everyone’s looking at you.” He pales at the thought. “Oh my god.”

Chai may be calling upon the Creator, but few ringers I poll are particularly religious. Over in Sydney at St Mary’s Cathedral by Hyde Park, lapsed Catholic Mark Ferguson admits to having been shamed into coming by the twin spires that intrude into the fabulous view of the harbour from his Darlinghurst apartment.

St Mary’s houses the crème de la crème of ringers, since volunteers progress their way to it from less magnificent towers. It boasts 14 bells, the best in the land. Tower Captain Murray-Luke Peard is a man for whom the phrase “well-oiled machine” might have been invented. Peard was at Mass seven years ago when he heard the bells ringing, “really, really badly.” Reckoning he could do better, he found the band online and introduced himself.

By his own admission, it wasn’t until he heard poorly syncopated rhythm that Peard realised bellringing wasn’t automated – and that’s not unusual. The band in his tower have heard every misconception, including the idea that there’s just one clever bell that does it all. In reality, there’s a strict hierarchy of ringers, which includes a tower captain, bell captain, vice captain, steeple keeper and ring master.

A cross-section of those I meet reveals legal backgrounds, IT experts, librarians, accountants, mathematicians and statisticians, computer programmers, engineers, a pathologist, oncologist and a medical technician. Analytical people with a love of logic. One of them jokes quietly to me that a common thread might be “mild Asperger’s”. Yet eccentricities are accepted without question. At St Mary’s today, the only person wearing a dress is a man in his sixties.

Treble-ringer Margaret Hill starts proceedings. “Look to … treble’s going … she’s gone,” she calls out, and they’re off. Today the Sydney band runs through 120 sequences in the first five minutes. There’s a book, a website and an app that list these. Some people visualise the patterns, others memorise or count.

“I love the mathematics,” enthuses Bernie Sharpe. “I do sudoku and crosswords in my spare time, particularly the DA on Friday.”

According to Sydney’s ring master Peter Harrison, who plans the arc of what the band learns over the course of the year, learners require about three months of one-on-one tuition – one hour a week – to get started. “That’s to make sure you can handle a bell safely,” he says, “because our lightest bell is 250 kilos and the heaviest is 1700, spinning around within a second or two.”

Many people ring in a succession of towers on a Sunday, which creates both camaraderie and competition. One such chap, in Sydney, is oncologist Alan Coates, who ascended St Mary’s 120-odd steps one Sunday morning in April to be met by a cardiac arrest.

Ferguson remembers pumping Coates’ chest in time to the Bee Gees’ ‘Staying Alive’ in his head. He tried to remember. Was he supposed to do a whole chorus, or just part of the chorus? Meanwhile, a rescue operation was being launched. Paramedics couldn’t helicopter Coates off the roof, nor transport him down the spiral stairs. Eventually he was lowered through the same trapdoor that the bells had once been raised through. As he was abseiled down, he consulted the Gospel on his phone – and lived to ring another day.

Now a defibrillator is in place at both St Mary’s and St Paul’s, but make no mistake, campanologists are hardcore. Take the formal ringing event – the peal – of upwards of seven bells, in which more than 5000 changes are rung. Participants go like the clappers for three or four hours, without breaking for relief or sustenance. It’s basically an endurance test with beer at the end.

I went into training, running around Centennial Park, because you hit the wall at about two-and-a-half hours,” says Paul Doyle of his peak peal period. But then, Doyle even married a ringer “because we needed her for the team.”

John Freaney, the steeple keeper at St Paul’s, shudders, “Some ringers have done 1500 peals – they’ll tour towers, doing at least one peal a day. They just love it. Others, like me, will do four, and that’s my right. At least I can say I’ve done it.”

The danger, explains Freaney, is that a ringer slips into autopilot, and then panics when they pop out of it again. Chai nods solemnly. “If one person gets it wrong, it has a domino effect,” he says, which is all very well if it’s at the beginning of a peal, but if it’s five minutes from the end, well, everyone will be ropable.

It’s for this reason that St Paul’s vice captain Neil McFarlane thinks ringing is a great form of mindfulness. McFarlane, who counts choral singing and Buddhist philosophy among his interests, says, “It’s a single point of concentration, so it’s meditation to an extent.”

Freaney agrees. “It’s surprising how many high-achievers do it, particularly in the City of London. I think it’s because for two hours they’ve got to switch off their mind to focus on one thing and one thing only.”

Apart from physical and mental wellbeing, the obvious advantage to bellringing is having an instant community anywhere in the British Commonwealth or United States. Oddly like the Freemasons or Alcoholics Anonymous members, ringers have access to an exclusive society that escapes the attention of the general public.

Harrison has fond memories of bellringing weekends in English villages. “I’ve rung in their towers and drunk in their pubs,” he says. “Bell-ringing is a very thirsty habit.”

The UK has around 5000 towers to Australia’s 50-odd, which does present problems for recruitment over here. “We haven’t got any Australian-born ringers,” notes St Paul’s tower captain Richard Laing, who’s from New Zealand. He’s placed adverts at universities and in The Age. At St Mary’s, they have 19-year-old Anna, but the band is just as eager as St Paul’s for fresh blood.

St Mary’s offer a free tour on the first Sunday of every month at 9.30am for those interested in watching, and there’s information about all towers at It’s advisable that a new recruit be upwards of 12 years old.

Ringing’s not for everyone, of course – there was one church in the UK where somebody broke in at night and cut all the ropes, infuriated by the interruption of their Sunday lie-ins – but those who become engrossed find they’re still happily learning the ropes up to six decades on.