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Sunday, April 15, 2012

What We Saw At Southwark Cathedral - Way Off the Tourist Path

Early one morning we went to the south bank of the Thames to visit Southwark Cathedral.

It is believed there has been a church on the site of Southwark Cathedral since AD 606. There may well have been a church there even earlier. Southwark Cathedral is the oldest cathedral church building in London, and archaeological evidence shows there was Roman pagan worship there well before that.

This is a really beautiful cathedral.  

We were there early in the morning when no one else was there except the organist, who was practicing.  Definitely moving.

We also went to the cathedral after hours, had a bit of a private tour and got to see what was behind this rather disturbing figure displayed for the Easter season.  Unfortunately we didn't get any pictures.

The reason we went after the cathedral was closed was to see what was behind this door.

This door leads to the Bishop Fox Tower, where the cathedral bells are housed.  Here's a little about the bells from the cathedral's website:

The bells of Southwark Cathedral are rung regularly for the major services, and for other special occasions and practices by the Southwark Cathedral Society of Bellringers. The Society is very enthusiastic, and membership is strong and on the increase. As well as other social activities, the Society enters the annual National 12-bell Striking Competition, and in 2006 reached the final of that contest. 
 The heaviest bell, or "Tenor", at Southwark is in the top ten of the heaviest change-ringing bells in existence. It weighs in at 48cwt - that's nearly two and a half tons.
The weight of the bells, and the age of the installation make them fairly difficult to ring. However, the superb tone of the bells makes the effort very worthwhile, and Society members are justifiably proud of the bells.

Although there are records of bells in the Cathedral from the early 1400s, the present ring of 12 bells dates from 1735. They were one of the earliest complete sets of 12 bells to be commissioned. The massive wooden frame which holds the bells dates from the same time.
The English style of change-ringing for which the bells are designed, was itself only around one hundred years old at that time. Ringing on such high numbers of bells was a new phenomenon. The bells of Southwark Cathedral were involved in some of the most advanced ringing then, and have continued to be so ever since. A thirteenth bell was added in 2005 to enable a lighter ring of eight bells to be rung. 
 Visiting ringers are welcomed on practice nights and for Sunday morning ringing.

When I read that last sentence, I knew (as The Mr and I both play bells - though not quite this way) that we had to go to see them practice.

The Mr and I play handbells, and are part of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers.  Handbells were created  to give folks who played the bells in church towers a way to practice without annoying the neighbors.  ;-)

The people who play at Southwark Cathedral don't play handbells.  They practice on the real thing.  And they don't mind if they bother the neighbors when they practice.  After all, they were there first!

We went through that door and up 135 steps (rickety, old dark steps.... quite challenging if you are not a fan of heights) and across a catwalk (yikes) and up some more steps to the bell tower. 

And we watched them practice playing.  Wow.  Quite an experience of sight and sound and of feeling - those bells make the tower really move!

One of the players took us up another flight of stairs to see the bells themselves - some of them are HUGE - and we watched as they played for a bit. 

We purchased this print to help the bell players raise money.  It is a print of a watercolor of the cathedral.  Do you see the top windows of the tower?  That's where we were!

Seemed like a good idea at the time, though we didn't think about the fact that we would need to carry it on the Tube, around the City and on the plane.  We also didn't expect to leave it at the pub after our rather late dinner and have to go back to said pub to collect the print and then carry it around the rest of the next day as well.  A good story though, and a good cause.

For musically inclined folks, this was an unparalleled experience.  So glad I did my research ahead of time!

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  1. DANG! Couldn't play the vidios, but that had to be so much fun and quite an experience to be able to ring the bells. The biggest thing about Europe is its history and architecture. They both inspire awe.

  2. Wow. That? Is cool as all get-out. I've only HEARD the bells, never saw them rung.

  3. Hi, I came over from Kelly's Korner blog! I am going to London next Wednesday, and was excited to see your links, since I have been obsessively researching the trip for months! I just started my blog... ... but will definitely be chronicling England in detail. :) I had not heard of the Royal Mews (not sure how I missed that) but we might check it out now. Also I'm off to google this Southwark Cathedral and see if it might be doable for us. Thanks for the great posts!