Michael Uphill has been a bell ringer for 57 years. On Christmas Day, he starts ringing the bells at St Mary’s Church by Putney Bridge, before dashing across London to Southwark Cathedral and then on to Westminster Abbey
‘It takes about six weeks to learn how to handle a bell, but a decade, or even a lifetime, to get really good,’ says one of the country’s most experienced bell ringers. Michael Uphill played at Will and Kate’s wedding and has been invited to ring the bells at cathedrals across the world.
‘People are drawn in by bells – it’s a very evocative sound. Christmas is obviously a particularly stirring time. You can feel the sense of anticipation and excitement and the atmosphere building as people enter the church on Christmas Eve for Midnight Mass. It’s wonderful. This year the 24th falls on a Sunday, so we’ll ring for the usual morning service and then again for the midnight service at 11pm.
‘Bell ringing is mathematical. It’s all about learning patterns and each ringer learns a path among the others, all doing the same thing but starting in a different place. When you pull the rope the bell rotates 360º and the part hanging inside – the clapper – hits the rim to make it ring. When the bell is pulled again, the bell rotates back and the clapper hits the other side.
‘You learn to get a rhythm and slow down or speed up, as needed. The movement goes right down your body, so that you and the bell act as one unit.
‘The bells here at St Mary’s have been restored many times. The church has been rebuilt over the centuries and, despite a fire in 1972, which destroyed most of the church, the walls and tower stairs, which date back to 1450, luckily survived.
‘At a normal Sunday service we’ll ring for about half an hour and for a weeding, for 15 minutes before and after the service. All the bells are different sizes, forming a diatonic octave (scale). We practise rounds every week and have new people learning – from the young to a couple in their 60s.
‘Things do go wrong: the rope can slip out of your hand, or the clapper breaks. And I’ve been in the belfry on two occasions when, sadly, someone died as they were ringing.
‘Christmas Day is a special time – and it’s wonderful to see children as they grow up over the years. After a day of ringing, I have my Christmas lunch at 4pm, when I get back from Westminster Abbey, tired but glad that I’ve rung another day.’