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Heard But Not Seen: Behind The Scenes of The Bell Tower Ringers

Home > Perth > Churches | Free | Misc | Unusual Things to do | Volunteering
by Shannon Meyerkort (subscribe)
Writer. Storyteller. Mother. Find out more at shannonmeyerkort.com/ or join me at fundraisingmums.com.au
Published January 18th 2017
History in the making
The cartoonish Quasimodo that adorns the entry to the Swan Bell Tower is misleading. Any thoughts of dusty wooden towers, scary gargoyles and malformed bell ringers are pushed from your mind when you enter the hushed and chapel-like space where the Swan Bell Tower volunteer ringers work their magic.

Volunteer Swan Bell Ringers
The volunteer bell ringers work their magic


Custom built in 2001 to specifically house the twelve 14th century St Martin in the Field bells, the Swan Bell Tower is all metal and glass, with six storeys of stone steps and views from the open observation deck all the way to the Darling Escarpment. It quickly became a Perth icon but its modern facade hides not only five tonnes of ancient bells, but a wealth of human experience and talent in the form of the volunteer bell ringers.

Anyone can chime a bell,' says Captain of the Swan Bell Tower Laura Ivey, 'but it takes weeks, months, even years of practice to learn how to ring a bell.' The collective bell-ringing experience of the volunteers present when we recently visited was a staggering 193 years. Laura's 70 years of experience tip the scales, while two gentlemen each with a respectable three or four years ringing, are considered new and still not allowed on the largest of all the bells, weighing in at a hefty 1,450kg. 'You have to work your way up,' I was told.

Volunteer Swan Bell Ringers
The bells are visible to bell ringers from a large screen on the wall


Don't look up, is another piece of advice I was given, or you will get dizzy. It's possible to be pulled up towards the ceiling if you are not careful. 'Bells and ropes can be dangerous,' cautions Laura. The element of danger suddenly puts the session in a different light.

They're not the easiest bells to ring, because they're so high up,' admits Laura, who, like most of the group, learned to ring in England. Of the ten volunteers present, only three had learned their skills in Perth, although that number is rising with the group of Perth volunteer bell-ringers approaching 60 members.

These are the same men and women who ring bells across Perth, announcing wedding nuptials and church services. Everyone has a favourite set of bells to work with, whether it is because of the sound of the bells or the space itself, but the Swan Bell tower is easily the most extensive set of bells in Perth. They are truly iconic, with visiting bell-ringers making the journey to Perth for a chance to work with them, such as Susan from Somerset in the UK. She was in Australia to visit family on the East coast, but made a special trip to Perth simply for the opportunity to ring the Swan bells.

Volunteer Swan Bell Ringers
One of the largest bells in the upturned position


It is an international secret language,' whispers Angela. Visiting bell-ringers from across the globe are welcome to join in the twice weekly sessions - as long as you meet Laura's strict qualifying standards. Once you participate fully in one of the hour long chiming sessions, regardless of where you are from, you are offered the chance to purchase a special Swan Bell Tower shirt. 'Not you, Shannon,' laughs Laura. Simply writing about the bells does not gain you entry to this exclusive club.

The general public can watch the ringers on special viewing screens on the fourth floor but no one is normally allowed in the chamber when the volunteers take the stage. Standing on boxes to enable them to reach the heavy ropes coming through the ceiling, today the group is unusually large: ten men and women have arrived for the one hour session, a rare treat I am told, because it means all ten of the main bells can be rung at the same time.

All I thought I knew about bell-ringing (learned from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, like most of my generation) was proven wrong as I was taken on a special behind-the-scenes tour of this oft heard but rarely seen group of ringers.

Volunteer Swan Bell Ringers
The ropes are stored safely on the ceiling


Contrary to my assumption, you cannot see the bells as you ring them. The Swan bells are located a full three floors above the chamber where the bell-ringers stand, the enormous ropes adding to the already considerable weight of the bells. Ringers can watch the motion of the bells on a large screen on the wall, just as visitors in the upper chamber can watch the ringers on screens located on the bell floor.

More important than seeing the bells, the volunteers learn to ring through feel, using the correct amount of pressure to turn the bells over, and learning how to stop them before they smash through the stays. The stays are a special piece of wood that the bell rests against. Laura explained that it is easy for a beginner to accidentally break the wood by using too much force when chiming the bell. A large broken piece of wood, the diameter of my forearm sat on the floor of the chamber as a reminder.

Volunteer Swan Bell Ringers
The bell ringers as seen from above


In the UK, the churches grow their own trees especially for the wood for repairs. Here in Perth, a broken stay means shipping a replacement all the way from England. Beginners are therefore trained very carefully. With more than a dozen ropes hanging from the ceiling, almost all were being rung during the volunteers' session. Only one remained looped over a hook on the wall. The dumb bell, Laura explained. 'It doesn't have a clapper so beginners can learn silently while the rest of the group ring. It still has a stay, though,' she said, motioning to the broken piece on the floor.

The volunteers can meet twice a week at the Bell Tower for a one hour session. While there are some that come regularly, the group is different every time. The youngest bell ringer at the Bell Tower is a youthful ten years of age. There are more children ringers at Claremont, where the bells are easier to chime.

Volunteer Swan Bell Ringers
My daughters are allowed a chance to chime the bells


It is free for anyone to learn to become a bell ringer, but it requires a commitment of at least one night a week, and a certain level of patience given that it might be years before you are capable of ringing all the bells.

Laura says that bell ringers need certain skills and qualities: co-ordination, concentration, commitment, strength and rhythm. You also need plenty of time, and a love of these incredible instruments.

People who are serious about joining this exclusive club would be expected to watch at least two sessions before being allowed to touch a bell. But when you finally get a chance, you would be taught by Perth's best.

To find out more about the volunteer bell ringers at Swan Bell Tower, contact the Tower Captain, Laura Ivey at lm.ivey@icloud.com, on 0428 320 394 or through the Bell Tower website. If you would prefer just to listen, the ringers meet every Sunday, Monday and Thursday between midday and 1pm.


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Why? Learn to ring the bells
When: Bell ringing Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays 12-1pm, training courses start throughout the year
Where: Swan Bell Tower, Barrack Square, Riverside Drive
Cost: FREE to become a volunteer (entry fees apply)
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