St Paul’s bellringers, ancient societies, mysterious ringing and Harry Potter

crypt St PaulsOranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five, Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know, Says the great bell of Bow.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed, And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

English Nursery Rhyme, original version (different from above) appeared in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (c. 1744)

It was dark and the summer revellers and loud tourists had long returned to their hotels and haunts. The moon was high. The air was sticky. It’s no wonder some residents reported lying awake that night. The walls and stone steps of St Paul’s Cathedral still held some warmth, attracting a bearded man who slumped against a church column. Bare footed and with a belly full of stale pasty and beer, he did sleep that night. Possibly – no probably – a rat scurried across the small wooden entry to the crypt. Beyond a certain hour, nights like these are still places in the City of London.

So it was that, when someone crept into the north-west tower via the open crypt door, climbed the spiral stairs and rang the smallest bell of St Paul’s, there were no witnesses, only hearers.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame cowering in the shadows, Hitchcock’s final frightening scene in the voyeuristic film Vertigo (1958) – no wonder a church bell tower is a place of such mystery and wonder.

North-west tower small wooden crypt door - scene of the crime.
North-west tower small wooden crypt door – scene of the crime.

That story of the mystery ringer was told to me by a bell-ringer from the Ancient Society of College Youth. She’s been ringing for 20 years. I’ve googled and oogled all over the web and cannot verify her story. But something about her curly grey and somewhat untamed hair, her horn-rimmed glasses, the glint in her eye and the fact that she’d just walked me through dark passages of St Paul’s church which are closed to the public, meant I hung onto every word.

In the words of Fox Mulder from The X-Files, “I want to believe.”

“I’m coming to London to ring the bells at St Paul’s Cathedral,” said our highly-accented Dutch client to us a couple of months ago. “Would you like to come with me?”

Um, is the sky blue? Is Elizabeth II the Queen of England? Of course we’d like to come along!

St Pauls CathedralSo last month, with croissant crumbs still on our faces, one gloved hand holding a steaming latte and the other buried in a coat pocket, Hubby and I met Mr dK and his 7 foot son at the north-west crypt entrance to the bell tower of St Paul’s. Sadly now the small wooden door to the pokey spiral staircase is locked and a lift has been installed. But this was enough for me!

I’ve wished this and dreamed this, and turned more rusty locked door handles than I can count. All my life I’ve wanted to go into places and doors that are out of limits – Hubby says it’s my innate rebellious nature. Maybe?

Bell-ringers starting the changes:

I can’t remember much about the science and maths of bell ringing but I can tell you this:

1. St Paul’s has 12 bells which is called a ‘peal’.
2. Our client has been ringing for 47 years and has rung at every cathedral and church in the UK that still has manual bells.
3. You start ringing rounds from the smallest bell to the biggest
4. Every bell feels different and the big bells are difficult to ring
5. It’s takes years and years to learn to ring the bells properly.
6. The Ancient Society of College Youth practice every week.
7. There is always a conductor.
8. Bells are rung in called sequences called ‘ringing rounds’.
9. The corps of Lord Nelson lies in state in the crypt beneath the bell tower.
10. Bell-ringers talk about bells in 100 weight, quarters and pounds.
11. Ringing a ‘peal’ means there over 5000 changes in a round and because of the size and weight of the bells at St Paul’s, this takes over 4 hours (no breaks)

Above the bell-ringing room, earplugs in ears, Hubby and I went further up the tower to see the bells:

12. Dordrecht Klockhuys in Holland was the leading ‘peal’ town in 2016.
13. Some belfries have very clever systems to control and direct the sound.
14. The Ancient Society of College Youth Bell-ringers began in 1637 and you cannot just join them.
15. Like Big Ben in Westminster, the “Communion Bell” in the south-west tower (c1700) also has a name. It’s called “the Banger” and is rung before 8.00am services.
16. A store room next to the upstairs gallery, not open to the public, contains stones and ruins from the original St Paul’s Cathedral which burnt down in 1666 – I walked through this room!

Stones and debris from old St Paul's
Stones and debris from old St Paul’s

17. The spiral staircase in Harry Potter was filmed in the north-west tower of St Paul’s. I stood above it and looked down, my fingers tingling as I held my phone over the edge to film from that height – eek!

18. There is a sewing room where vestries are made and repaired – fascinating!

danger19. When the changes have been rung precisely timed to end at the start of the Sunday service, bell-ringers can stop the bells instantaneously by ‘hooking’ them upside down.

P.s. The tune of Oranges and Lemons resembles ‘change ringing’, and the intonation of each line is said to correspond with the distinct sounds of each church’s bells. Today, the bells of St. Clement Danes still ring out the tune of the rhyme.
P.p.s. This dark rhyme is repeatedly referred to in George Orwell’s novel 1984 (1949).
P.p.p.s. A bell-ringer is a ‘campanologist.
P.p.p.p.s. My next wish is for a behind the scenes tour of the British Museum. Perhaps we can go there on the pretext of finding out what happened to Wellington’s eyebrow? Hubby’s father, who has reason to believe that they are distantly related to Wellington, donated what the family believes to be his eyebrow, to the British Museum. They are not out on display as yet.
P.p.p.p.p.s. There used to be a tour of the abandoned tube stations on the London Underground – cups left as they were, crumpled paper in the rubbish bins, old train schedules – who’s coming with me when they reopen that one?


This is the special effects scene of the Harry Potter spiral staircase in St Paul’s:


4 thoughts on “St Paul’s bellringers, ancient societies, mysterious ringing and Harry Potter

  1. Love this! It is all so you! I’ll definitely come with on the abandoned underground tour, set it up for next September/October see.


  2. Loved this blog!! Was completely intrigued and could not help to read to the end!! How exciting to get to do this. I think a tour of the old underground stations would be very interesting. You must do it!!!


  3. A very ‘ap…peal ing ‘ event.Gosh you have certainly enjoyed another great visit to London Town.Love the account and the movies.Hope your challenge to view the underground comes to fruition next year.Enjoy your Christmas travels.x


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