If 2020 was all about lockdown and fear, then 2021 for me was all about release and hope. Of course, the pandemic is not over yet and controls may be needed for years. But with vaccines available (here in the UK, at least), it was a year when we could cautiously re-enter the world and reactivate our cities.
This is a recording of six of the bells at St Mary Le Bow church (also known as the ‘Bow Bells’) ‘ringing up’ before embarking on a quarter peal at the City of London’s Festival of Bells on 31 July 2021. The purpose of the ‘ringing up’ was to raise the bells from hanging loose mouth down, to being brought to balance up like a cup in readiness for change ringing.
I found the enveloping sound so powerful and moving: like an ecstatic release from the dull sadness of lockdown.
The pandemic had left the City eerily quiet. Not only had it been abandoned by commuters and tourists; but bell ringers had also stayed away due to the danger of Covid contagion in cramped bell towers (I’ve written more about this in Chiming During the Pandemic, my sound of 2020). The Festival of Bells 2021 was promoted as a celebration of London reopening. It took place soon after the last legal restrictions were lifted and people could return to offices. The aim was to get as many of the City’s bells to ring as possible. One of the organisers, Trisha Shannon, told me how she had started the day unlocking bell towers, resetting stopped wall clocks and taking down calendars hanging open at March 2020.
St Mary Le Bow was the first church to perform change ringing that day; and by extension also the first since the start of the pandemic. There’s a famous saying that to be a true Londoner you have to be born within earshot of Bow Bells. It’s why I think of the bell tower as the sonic centre of London. And it’s why the sound felt to me like a reactivation of the City’s soundscape from its heart.