The sound of London coming back to life

St Paul's Cathedral

The City of London was a strange place to visit during lockdown. With offices, shops and bars all shut, an eerie quiet replaced the usual intense mix of traffic, building works, amplified music and – my favourite sound – bell ringing.

I made these recordings at the City of London’s Festival of Bells 2021 because I was eager to capture the sound of London coming back to life. The festival took place on 31 July soon after ‘freedom day’ when the last legal restrictions were lifted and people could return to offices. It was promoted as a celebration of London reopening, with the aim of getting as many bells to ring as possible. The City’s bell towers had been shut since March 2020 because of the risk of Covid contagion in cramped spaces. Mechanically operated bells continued to strike the hour and, in the case of St Paul’s Cathedral, to chime quietly for services; but the energetic, joyful sound of change ringing had ceased. For ringers and listeners alike, this was a really exciting occasion.

For best effect, listen with headphones.

For a chance to marvel at St Paul’s Cathedral bells ringing for service and explore the City’s soundscape – past, present and future – join us on The London Ear guided walk on Sunday 10 October and 14 November. 

Great Paul: a sleeping giant stirs

The festival opened shortly before 9.20am with the tolling of Great Paul at St Paul’s Cathedral. At 17,002kg it’s the largest bell hanging in a church anywhere in the UK. It had been silent for fifteen years because of a mechanical fault. It was rung for the occasion by two ringers each pulling a rope to rotate it on two wheels.

I had been expecting something declamatory and jubilant. Instead the slow, quiet tolling felt like a sleeping giant stirring; an apt way to mark a 2000 year old City ending 18 months on pause.

Great Paul’s strike tone is a low Eb. If you listen carefully with headphones you may start to notice the spectrum of harmonics resonating above and below. The bell tolled for twelve minutes followed by rather tinny quarters announcing the half hour, and clapping from the small gathering listening in the courtyard.

St Mary le Bow: an ecstatic release

There’s a famous saying that to be a true Londoner you have to be born to the sound of Bow Bells. It’s why I think of St Mary le Bow’s bell tower as the sonic centre of London.

The bells were due to ring a quarter peal just after the tolling of Great Paul. Shortly before they started, the ringers rang six of the bells ‘up’ in preparation. This involved ringing rapidly repeating downward scales to raise them from hanging loose mouth down, to being brought to balance up like a cup.*

The wonderfully reverberant sound felt like an ecstatic release from the dull sadness of lockdown; and a joyful reactivation of the City’s soundscape from its heart.

*Thanks to Trisha Shannon for explaining what was going on.

St Magnus the Martyr: a city on the go again

St Magnus the Martyr celebrated the day with a full peal. The twelve bells would have been ringing for nearly three hours by the time I made this recording. I found the subtly permutating sequences (or ‘changes’) mesmerising. I loved how the bells interacted with traffic coming past on Lower Thames Street. It gave a real sense of a city on the go again.