One of the great joys of living in Sitka is “change bell ringing” from the tower of St. Michael’s Cathedral. Change Ringing is not playing a tune, but the repeat of a mathematical sequence of different bells. The sequence is not written down in musical notes but on a chart showing when each bell should be rung. One of the vertical pictures below shows you the chart. In Sitka on very cruise ship day at noon the St. Michael’s bells peel out to the delight of those of us downtown, and especially on the Sea Walk jetty.
Perth has taken change ringing several steps beyond. For the bicentennial of the “First Fleet” arriving in Australia the London Church of St. Martin in the Fields gifted its bells to Australia. Gifted is, perhaps not the right word. The bells are heavy and the bell tower at St. Martin’s is old and they decided it was easier to recast the bells, using the same metal, to a more appropriate size. Perthsider Leith Reynolds had a different idea. Australia would provide St. Martin’s with a new set of bells, cast from virgin Australian copper and tin, in return for the St. Martin’s old bells. Some of the St. Martin’s bells were recast in the 1700s from the original bells. Some of them were original, the oldest cast in 1550. That bell rang out to celebrate the English victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588; the bells also marked the return of James Cook in 1771. They celebrated VE and VJ days at the end of World War II. They’ve welcomed the New Year for centuries. They are same of the bells from the children’s rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” “You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s.” The largest bell is a ton and a half.
Having gotten the bells Perth made creation of the “Swan Tower” on the Swan River its millennial project. The tower is a tall glass and copper structure, with the copper representing sails. There are 7 levels. The top level is an open air platform and observation platform (you can see pictures from it in the Perth Post) with a small carillon from Canberra that was replace when that city outgrew them and replaced them with larger bells that you could hear throughout the town. This one is a coin operated carillon where for a dollar you can chose either a classic change ring or a popular song. The two attendants say “Waltzing Matilda” and “Jungle Bells” are driving them mad.
But the main attraction (other than the toilets on level 5) is on the fourth level where you can actually see the bells ring. If you were actually standing next to the bells when they rang it would, in the words of Silvia, one of the guards, “shred your eardrum.” So they have installed very thick, multiple panes of glass to protect you when you are at the level of the bells. Reflections from the glass make photography of the bells very difficult. The other attraction is on level 2 where you can watch people pulling on the ropes that ring the bells. The glass is tinted so that if you accidently shoot a flash it does not disturb the bell ringers and it is mirrored on their side so they cannot see you looking down on them.
On normal days there are sessions where you can sign up to ring the bells. And I would have liked to have done that, but on Thursdays those sessions are reserved for school children. Watching the kids do it is probably better than doing it yourself. At noon everyday people leave their offices, give up their lunch hour, and do a 45 minute “quarter peel” (A full celebratory peel is 3 hours). It’s a hobby for them and a delight for us.
The Swan Tower also has a clock with a Westminster chime sounding every 15 minutes. They plan one more bell for the tower, a large swinging bell, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere (meaning larger than Sydney). The “Great Bell” will way 6 and a half tons and be dedicated to the ANZACs. It is being funded by the Western Australia lottery.
We stayed at the tower for a good hour and three quarters, playing changes on the carillon juke box, watching the kids and then enjoying the quarter peel. We went from level four to level two to watch and them outside to listen to what it sounds like to the town. During the peel the whole building vibrates and shakes. It feels really unstable, especially on the top level.
The area around the bell tower was once open greenspace. However Queen Elizabeth Quay is under development right next to the tower (as you can see in the pictures and will be able to read about in Perth Post.) Sylvia tells us that they will have to put sound baffles on the tower to reduce the sound level for the surrounding buildings going up. That, of course, will mean that the rest of the city will not hear the bells as clearly.