You would imagine that, along with a reasonable level of fitness, the main attribute for making a trip to the bell tower of the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral would be a head for heights.
But as it turns out, the ability to handle enclosed spaces is more of an issue.
I’m halfway up the final section of the increasingly narrow spiral staircase. As I move tentatively upwards, I place my feet on the ever-smaller steps, hands gripping tightly to the rough jute rope, when the rucksack on my back suddenly jams, caught fast by the soft, red sandstone closing in on all sides. Momentarily I’m stuck, unable to move either upwards or downwards.
The sensation is more akin to descending into a network of caves in the earth’s crust than ascending towards the heavens.
“It is a bit of a warren of corridors and stairs,” laughs Leslie Burgher. “It gets narrower and steeper the higher you get.”
Leslie is one of six volunteers that take it in turn to ascend these steps every week, ringing the cathedral’s three great bells as the congregation gathers below for their Sunday service. The system for bellringing at St Magnus is a little different to how we’re used to seeing it portrayed in popular culture, as Leslie explains.
“The traditional way of ringing, in an English church in particular, is the bell swings and the clappers stay still. That’s what makes the noise. Then you see the rope flying up and down, which is always used to comedy effect to hoist people in the air.
“But this is quite different. The bell is fixed and hangs there, and the clapper is pulled against a rope tied to the wall. It means that one person can ring the three bells at once - one with your foot and one with each hand.”
Doing this involves sitting in a large wooden chair, of sorts. It has the appearance of some piece of medieval torture apparatus. Leslie takes his seat, grips the ropes, places his right foot on the wooden pedal connected to the third rope, and begins.
The Sunday bells start slowly, a single chime every ten seconds. Gradually the three bells are rung in faster and more complex patterns. The noise in the tower is apocalyptic. The deep resonances of each bell setting up waves of sound that jar with opposing soundwaves, creating regular and violent distortions. This is a sound best appreciated from ground-level – which is exactly as it’s meant to be.
The entire sequence takes around fifteen minutes and appears physically demanding “It’s a reasonable workout,” jokes Leslie. “I always say that it's just as well that you don't have to go up the stairs at the end of it. Gravity helps on the way back down.”
The hand-ringing of the bells has only just restarted, following Covid restrictions. "In March 2020, I rang the bells on the Sunday morning and then within a few days we were in lockdown and there were no services in the cathedral for quite some time,” explains Leslie.
“Gradually services came back in reduced form, and they’ve grown, and just recently it's been decided to restart bell-ringing. So, I had the good fortune to again be the first bell-ringer after lockdown.”
The cathedral bells haven’t been entirely quiet, of course. The wonderfully archaic-looking automated system ensures they ring on the hour and every quarter hour throughout the day.
And during lockdown the traditional evening curfew bells seemed to carry an extra poignancy as they resonated across the near silent streets and rooftops of the town - simultaneously reminding us of the temporary restrictions on our lives, but also the deep history of resilience, fortitude and common good that this great Norse cathedral represents.
For Leslie, who’s rung these bells since he was a schoolboy, it’s good to be back in this lofty belfry. “It was a bit emotional, and I felt a little bit rusty with it all. But it's funny how the muscle memory comes back, and you find your way into the rhythms.
“It's something amazingly special. Every Sunday morning you think these bells have been here for almost 600 years, and you’re just the latest in a long line of those who have rung people into the church on a Sunday morning. It’s an amazing thing to do.”