The Spitalfields Bellringers
Last night, the sound of bells was blowing in the wind as I walked out of my door into the rainy street, passing a line of visitors with umbrellas on a tour in the dark, before I entered the tall gates at the rear of Christ Church Spitalfields – where at the back door, Alan Regin (pictured below), who has been the Steeple Keeper here for the past twenty years, was waiting for me. Alan led me through the dark empty church, up a wide wooden staircase and through a small door leading to a narrow stone staircase, spiraling upwards through the thick wall of the tower. At the top of the steps, we passed through a tiny exquisite eighteenth century wrought iron gate and walked along a short shadowy passage to discover the bright loft, high in the steeple, where eight bellringers stood in a circle, swinging the ropes up and down with concentrated skill.
Mary Holden who stands central in the picture above and is Master of the Society of Cumberland Youths (a society of bellringers founded in 1746), took a break to come over and explain that her ringers are responsible for ringing the bells in three London churches, St Leonards Shoreditch, St Martin-in-the-Fields and here. She told me they have rung the bells at Christ Church Spitalfields since the eighteenth century and the circular plaque you see in the photo commemorates a three-hour and twenty-four minute peal of bells they rang in this tower in 1845. “The bells here are lovely, they have a really nice tone, and are well-maintained so they are quite easy to ring” enthused Mary, who is a passionate third generation bellringer. Then, within minutes, the two-hour session was over and the thirsty ringers all vacated the loft at once, making their way swiftly to The Pride of Spitalfields, which I am informed is the bellringers’ long-standing destination afterwards – where they like to meet with the employees of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to enjoy a professional debate of the niceties of campanology over a few pints.
Alan and I were left alone to stand for a moment, and savour the resonance of this beautiful space with its single half-moon window, which indicates the position of the loft if you are looking up at the tower from the street. I learnt there have been three sets of bells here in its history. The original peal of twelve was destroyed in the great fire of 1836, to be replaced by a peal of eight cast in Whitechapel that lasted until the nineteen twenties, then the tower became silent until 1971 when the current peal of eight bells (cast by Gillet & Johnston in 1919) was acquired second-hand from the demolished church of St Stephens in Clapham.
As we switched out the lights, closed the little iron gate and descended the narrow stone staircase, Alan accounted for the wear upon the steps by telling me that in olden times the ringers wore hobnailed boots. “You get into some very interesting places,” he said, elaborating on his delight in bellringing. Then, continuing, as we reached the foot of the stairs, “I started when I was seven at Otterham in Surrey”, he confided, “I had an elder brother who was a bellringer and he encouraged me, and as soon as I got hold of a rope I was hooked!” We paused on the landing for a moment and he pointed out a panel commemorating The London Surprise Major when the bells were rung by eight ringers for eleven hours and thirty-five minutes non-stop in 2005 with Alan himself ringing the tenor. I expect they were thirsty afterwards that day.
Finally, as we walked back through the dark church, Alan told me about The Golden Heart Surprise Major. “We really feel part of the community here in Spitalfields, and I remember talking to Denys Esquilant and he said how much he enjoyed hearing the bells here on a Sunday morning.” said Alan, explaining the origin of this composition – which celebrates the life of Denys Esquilant who died last year, and the thirty years that he and Sandra ran the Golden Heart together in Commercial St. You can watch a film of Sandra Esquilant (whom I have dubbed the Queen of Spitalfields) up in the tower, attending the inauguration of The Golden Heart Surprise Major by clicking here. Be sure to look out for Alan ringing on the right of the circle of ringers.
I would like to salute Alan Regin who has undertaken the honorary role of Steeple Keeper here in Spitalfields with good humoured equanimity for two decades, he has obviously done his job well because the steeple looks better now than it ever did, and it was a rare honour for me to end the year by visiting the inner enclave of this famous edifice in such good company.