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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

The appeal of a peal. City of London Festival of Bells

To mark the reopening of the City of London, a bell ringing festival was held on Saturday 31 July 2021 at 20 churches, 18 in the City and two (St Clement Danes, Strand and Christ Church, Spitalfields) just outside.

This is a significant proportion of the 40 or so Anglican churches in the City, still the most densely churched area of the country.

Annemarie and I managed to get to 13 of the 20 churches. Alas, bad planning and a challenging schedule meant we did not get to St Clement Danes, St Dunstan in the West, St Andrew Holborn, St Andrew by the Wardobe, St Bartholomew the Great, St Giles Cripplegate, or St Vedast.

Here is the day's diary (scroll to the end for a link to a video showing the churches we saw).

9am. Arrive St Paul's Cathedral, top of Ludgate Hill, small crowd around Queen Anne statue. One or two other City Guides also there!

9.20am. Ringing of 16.5 ton Great Paul, UK's largest swinging bell, in SW tower of St Paul's (on the right as you look at the front of the cathedral). After repairs to damage, this is first sounding for 10 or 20 years (sources vary). Apparently, Bishop of London and Lord Mayor ringing it, but we can't see from outside! Its single, repeated, tone sounds rather solemn.

10am. St Sepulchre without Newgate (proper name Church of the Holy Sepulchre), Holborn Viaduct. Entrance other side from main road. Bell ringers, masked and committed, queuing to go in and have a go. Bypass them to look around the church, including musicians' chapel. Full peal of 12 bells ringing loud.

There's another bell here - Newgate Execution Bell - a handbell that chaplain of Newgate Prison used to ring outside condemned cell at midnight before an execution. This continued from early 1600s to early 1800s.

10.35am. St Mary le Bow, its 12 bells make loudest noise of the day - amplified by buildings on Cheapside and Bow Churchyard. Small gathering in churchyard to hear Bow Bells, a sound that defines being a Cockney for those born within earshot. That sounds like a large area today!

11.10am. St James Garlickhythe, bottom of Garlick Hill. Scaffolding obscures clock and statue of St James on tower, but the sound of 8 bells is loud. Inside, one of my favourite things in the City: on a column on the left after you enter is a sign: "Sir Christopher Wren, he builded this church".

St James Garlickhythe: a sign on a column inside the church
My favourite sign in the City, in St James Garlickhythe

11.25am. St Michael Cornhill, round the back on St Michael's Alley, a small churchyard next to Jamaica Inn. Workmen erecting scaffolding make distracting noises with power tools. Surprisingly quiet 12 bell peal.

11.50am. St Magnus the Martyr, Lower Thames Street, down Fish Street Hill past the Monument. Not open to go inside, but a magnificent 12 bell peal shows St Magnus' pride and strength from across Lower Thames Street. A tour guide competes by use of a portable speaker

Midday. Eat delicious panini in Seething Lane Garden, near bust of Samuel Pepys of Diary fame. He worked (and lived) at Navy Office that once stood here. Panini (mozzarella/sun-dried tomatoes) from one of the City's remaining independent sandwich shops, struggling due to lack of office workers.

12.30pm. St Olave Hart Street, Pepys' local church, where he's buried. Its 8 bells started a bit late, but a very creditable noise, the stone skulls and bones over the churchyard gate adding to the drama (but locked, so can't go in).

The carved skull and bones over the gate to the churchyard at St Olave Hart Street
Skull and bones at St Olave Hart Street

1pm. All Hallows by the Tower (aka All Hallows Barking, as once belonged to Barking Abbey). Plenty of time before 1.30pm ringing, so look inside: WW2 Blitz scorch marks, the only Saxon arch in the City, several nautical items, but crypt museum closed and Grinling Gibbons font cover has gone to an external exhibition. Coffee at attached Byward Kitchen & Bar, with its own garden. The sun is shining!

1.30pm. All Hallows by the Tower carillon recital starts. Melodies played one note at a time, starts with God Save The Queen, moves onto 'S Wonderful and others I don't know.

2.10pm. St Margaret Pattens, single bell chiming out across Eastcheap and small row of remaining Georgian shop buildings. Inside, look at display of pattens (wooden shoe coverings) and also see/hear choir practising some lovely singing.

2.20pm. St Katherine Cree. Door to bell tower is open, so the six bell ringers are visible (the only church we see this), but we can't go in. Other bell ringers are awaiting their turn. I've still never been inside that church!

2.30pm. St Mary Woolnoth, after running there, but too late - ringing just stopped!

2.35pm. Heavy rain shower, shelter under porch of Royal Exchange, fortunately nearby and has room for a few more.

3.15pm. St Botolph Bishopsgate, still drizzling, but its 8 bells ring out a sunny peal. We talk to a bell ringer who came from Chichester for the day to join in at churches that offered general ringing. Says he has rung in all the 'Oranges and Lemons' churches, but I don't ask which St Clement's and St Martin's, as that is controversial (for another post!).

4.30pm. Christ Church, Spitalfields, our only stop outside the City, via a stroll around the market stalls and a group of swing dancers at Spitalfields Market. Quick look inside church, handsomely restored in recent years, but almost entirely without historical artefacts. Has stage and sound/light equipment for concerts/gigs. Its 8 bells are quiet and struggle against traffic on Commercial Street.

Inside Christ Church Spitalfields
Inside Christ Church Spitalfields

6pm. Home after walking back. Tired, but delighted to hear so many bells for the first time. City churches are cultural repositories, stores of history, art, sculpture, music (and religion!). Lucky to live a walkable distance from the City!

According to The Square Mile Churches, 65 bells rang out during the day. This included full peals of over 5,000 changes lasting 3½ hours at St Magnus the Martyr and St Michael’s Cornhill, and 2 carillon recitals at All Hallows-by-the-Tower. Over 150 ringers came into London to take part.

Here's the London On The Ground video blog (called a vlog, my daughter tells me) from our YouTube channel. It includes clips of all the churches that we heard and saw on 31 July.

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