Big Adventures with Paula McGuire

DURING the 1980s, when shoulders were big and hair ever bigger, I was promised that the rhythm was definitely, at an undisclosed point in the future, gonna get me. Well, Ms Gloria Estefan, 30 years on and I still can’t keep a beat with a metronome and a steel trap.

While music wasn’t quite my first love, it still dilated my teenage pupils more than any denim-clad crush and, unlike its counterparts, stuck around to patch up my heart when its desires had ground it to pieces.

Though music has always been good to me, I’ve never exactly added value to its stock; my tenor isn’t worth the paper its printed on and even the penny whistle lost its name’s worth in my interpretation.

No longer one to play to my strengths, though, this week I fielded a team of my finest weaknesses to put my blues aside and test my rhythm with bellringing.

If you’ve ever climbed a bell tower, you’ll probably understand Quasimodo’s plight – 55 narrow, winding stone steps later and

I was calling out for water from the nearest passing Esmeralda.

Based in the Gothic beauty of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow’s west end, St Mary’s Cathedral Guild of Bellringers dates back to 1901, although its members are decidedly more fresh-faced than the history suggests.

With only 22 bell towers in Scotland, St Mary’s 10-bell set attracts a regular quota of ringers. Tuesday evening practice invites beginners along to witness the bells’ appeal. Before showing me the literal ropes, qualified Association of Ringing Teachers instructor Tina Stoecklin led me upwards to meet the bells themselves.

Perched on a ladder that knew no mercy, I looked down upon the 200kg instruments, watching as one bell swung its full pendulum to balance, mouth upwards, like a baby bird upon its mother waiting. The process is known to insiders as “ringing up” and, when positioned in this way, the bell is set, unsurprisingly, for full-circle ringing.

The noise was enormous, ripping through the bricked-up tower like a demolition; sharp as top-band tax rate, but sweeter than sugar soap for the ears. Barely a few gongs was enough to impress on me the purity and power of the sound, and also somehow to make me hungry for a successfully microwaved meal.

Back in the now-full chamber below, the band were getting together, setting the bells and taking their places around the circular space. Tina was careful to make sure I stood a little out of the loop, since it’s easy to forget that the innocuous ropes dangling from holes in the slatted ceiling above are attached to a whole mess of danger for the blissfully ignorant. And, as ignorance goes, I’m as blissful as they come.

Almost immediately I felt at home in the bell chamber, as wooden boxes of differing heights were placed beneath several of the cords. As a person whose stature can only be described as Sylvanian, I had finally found a place where it was generally accepted that a wee puntie-up was never inappropriate.

The bells are numbered, but the ringers move around, specialising at times in one area, but not restricted to a position. Before the joy of hearing the full 10-bell peal, my tutor for the session, Jonathan Frye, started my campanology career with a lesson in technique.

Since the full stroke is both difficult and risky for a beginner, Jonathan taught me part of the movement first, the back stroke, which, after a sinking start,

I plunged into quite nicely, holding the rope’s end, following it up as the bell made its weight known, then tugging down firmly, but carefully, for Jonathan to catch once again.

We did this over and over, finding the cadence, until muscle memory kicked in and the movement became almost instinctive; when I could just enjoy the chime leaking from the floor above and my own part in its constitution.

Shoulders aching but enjoying the new weight upon them, I followed Jonathan’s instructions, mirroring his actions, as I added dong to ding to complete the stroke. Without touching the Sally – the chunkiest bit of the rope, named hopefully after a woman with half-decent self-esteem – I copied the motion like a vine-climbing mime; hands gradually nearing the padded hand-grip until, yes, there was no doubt, that bell was mine to jingle.

Stepping aside from number six to make way for the band wasn’t easy – mainly since the box was pretty high – but the vertigo was made worthwhile by the performance which was to come.

With a call of “treble going”, the first rope of the set was pulled. She was gone, and, for the next

10 minutes, so was I. Gone into a world of Christmases, weddings, and nostalgia for a quaint village life I’ve never actually known.

In a perfect Mexican wave, the melody moved through the chamber; the ringers playing rounds, the conductor of the piece shouting numbers like The Giants on arms day.

Soaking in the peals, I spent the rest of that evening finding joy in a rhythm that I could feel in the very air around me, a rhythm that I knew without understanding, a rhythm that I got and that had finally got me.