that rings a bell

Look, I’ll be honest. This is going to be one nerdy post. If 400-year-old traditions are not really your thing, feel free to tune out and tune back in next week when I write about street art and hip-hop, yo. (Which I won’t, I’m just trying to be cool guys. Guys?)

I’ve never thought much about bellringing before, it’s not really a thing in Australia, but here in England, every village has a church and every church has bells, and those bells need ringing. It’s a community activity. And it’s kind of fascinating.

I’ve always enjoyed the sound of bells pealing, so when I have the chance to watch the local bellringers practise I think, why not? Up I climb into the belfry of “St Scoliosis” (as it’s affectionately called by my friends in Cleobury Mortimer due to its twisted spire) and watch them go through their paces.

If there’s one thing you should know about bellringing it’s this: it is complicated. Like a lot of things, there’s a code and a terminology you have to crack in order to enter, and perhaps after that it gets easier, but I wouldn’t know because this is how it looks to me when I walk in:

Six people (in this case) stand in a circle and proceed to pull on the bell ropes hanging from the ceiling, making a giant clanging noise for a few minutes. After this the leader announces, “Plain Bob” or “Grandsire”, or some other charming name like “Francis Genius Delight” or “London Surprise”. Somebody might say, “Fourth in the hunt” or “Second run in” or something like that, and a recognisable downward peal begins, from high to low. After a while I notice the pattern has changed, and continues to change. People pull the ropes at different times, and as I tune my ear to each bell it starts to look less random. Occasionally someone calls “Up!” or “Go next!” After about ten minutes they return to the original downward peal, the leader calls “Stand!” and they stop.

“We just rang 120 changes,” Alec the leader of the Cleobury ringers tells me. It sounds like a lot but he has also informed me that with six bells up to 720 changes are possible. This is one thing I learn: that the correct term for the order in which the bells are rung is a “change”.

That clanging at the beginning and end? They’re pulling the bells up before they start ringing, and returning them back down when they’re finished practising. Turns out bells are rung in an upside down position and it takes a few minutes of gathering momentum to get them there. When it comes time to strike a note, each pull on the rope – the “handstroke” and the “backstroke” – brings the bell around 360 degrees, “mouth up to mouth up”. I guess that’s how you get that big beautiful “gong”. I believe gong is not a technical term.

Before this I thought it must be just like music: each ringer is a note on the page and they play their notes in different orders depending on the song. This is correct for about three seconds – the time it takes to ring through the six bells once. It’s so much more involved and technical than that. Each composition is not a linear sequence of notes like in a melody, but a series of changes. The ringers are regularly moving around each other, swapping the order in which they ring their bells, all from memory. They also understand sentences like, “All working bells plain hunt everywhere except at the lead end where 2nd’s place is made, causing bells in higher positions to dodge.”

At that point, I just sit back and enjoy the gorgeous sound.

Next week: the history of bookbinding. (Kidding!)


dear bristol

Dear Bristol,

Thanks for having me to stay; you certainly know how to treat a girl of my sensibilities.

I admit to being a bit unsure of you when we first met. It wasn’t your fault, really, but after London I’ve come to expect a train or bus at my doorstep every 3 minutes, even if it is Sunday. Of course I soon realised how little that mattered, since a lot of your best places are clustered around the city centre.

And really, you made up for that long walk from the station in spades. As soon as I hit the streets I knew we’d get along great. You’ve got a great mix of history, bohemia and hipsterism going on. On my first day with you I discovered a ruined church that dates from Saxon times, the St Nicholas Markets with second-hand books and food stalls, and scored a cheap ticket to a theatre show the following night. Incidentally, it was an incredibly creative re-telling of Orpheus. You’re doing good things at the Tobacco Factory so keep that up.

A little like that list some of us have of what we want in a partner, you tick a lot of the boxes for what I like in a city. Artisan bakeries – check. Vintage clothing boutiques – check. Fresh produce in cute little grocers – check. Great arts scene – check. Piles of historical sites – check. Countryside nearby – check. Friendly people – check. If it’s not too forward of me to say so, I think we really suit each other.

You’re a many-faceted city and I was charmed by each distinctive quarter. Window shopping on Park St. Georgian terraces and the impressive suspension bridge of Clifton. Street art in Stokes Croft. Candy-coloured houses in Totterdown. Food on St Mark’s Rd in Easton. Dinner and a show in Southville.

There are some things you’re consistent on, Bristol, and I like that too. You’ve welcomed a lot of immigrants over the years, and they’ve made you colourful and interesting. People cycle everywhere, and I got used to seeing bike shops between cafés and art shops. You’ve splashed a little colour across the whole city, whether it’s a pale peach façade or a bright green doorframe.

But, I’ll be honest, it was your Bristol burr that really won me over. I’ve always been a girl who likes an accent and yours is a corker. That rolling West Country lilt, full of rich ‘r’s and surprising ‘l’s. Hearing “chirrs drive” (“cheers driver”) as people got off the bus and being asked “orright me luvver” (“how are you?”) at the post office, got me very time. You didn’t have to do much to win me over after that.

So, laters, Bristol. You’re proper and I hope we meet again one day.

expect away

I learned at a young age that one part of being happy is keeping your expectations low. This isn’t some joke about pessimism. I’m serious. It’s a useful tool to counter disappointment. Obviously this is context dependent. I don’t advocate the crushing of hopes and dreams; I also think anticipating something good is a chief joy in life. But moderating expectations is helpful.

Which is a long way round to saying that the landscape around Stonehenge is pretty darn cool. Stonehenge itself – sure. It’s great. It’s an incredible feat of engineering and its mysterious origins didn’t fail to pique my interest. But I expected that because it’s a world-famous monument weighted with myth and hype (deservedly so) and I kind of felt like I’d been told what to feel in advance. The thing that made the deepest impression on me? Burial mounds.

You see, I wasn’t expecting them.

The Stonehenge visitors centre does a great job at filling in the cultural background, explaining the archaeology and providing a sense of awe about the stones. I learned about the burial mounds (they’re actually called “round barrows” or “long barrows”, the difference being self-explanatory) before heading out. They keep Stonehenge hidden from view at first: from the centre you catch a bus or take a half hour walk down a road and through a small wood before coming out on a grassy plain, wide and windswept, and seeing the henge in the distance.

The barrows are scattered for miles around the stones. You’d mistake some of them them for undulations in the land if you didn’t know that these small hills are actually prehistoric tombs. Walking across a field past a big old mound of dirt and knowing that 4000-year-old bones are buried in there gave me a bit of a thrill. They’re so unassuming – and unexpected. Stonehenge was amazing, but it was precisely what I anticipated it would be. Those round barrows, rising at random, strange as crop dustings, gave insight into how the prehistoric people of this area lived, or at least died, and there was a genuine tingle of discovery in that.

I’ve had a few of these travel moments over the years and increasingly think that arriving in a town or city or region with a rough plan, a handful of ideas or one big attraction, and then being flexible and open to what you might find is the most fun way to get around. Of course it’s vital to be prepared in terms of transport, costs, language, that kind of thing. But the afternoon years ago when I stumbled across the Royal Pavilion in Brighton was brilliant; I’d chosen Brighton on its reputation as a nice seaside town and suddenly had an exotic palace too! I felt like I’d unearthed a treasure.

So I’m glad I saw the impressive stones, but I’m also glad I didn’t know everything about the site beforehand because I got more than I expected.

P.S. The round barrows in the image above are some of the larger and more distinct that I saw. Do an image search if you want to see more – they look kind of cool from the air.

driving england

I promised that I would say something about driving in England. A foolish promise, since the extent of my driving experience on this small island is about four hours – so I’m no authority. I’m nearly the opposite of an authority. But when you’re new somewhere you notice the differences, and this is what I noticed.

English people are both the best drivers and the worst drivers.

They’re the best drivers because they can confidently whizz along a road the width of a pencil lined with curving hedgerows and not have a head-on with another car. In congested cities they can quickly and wordlessly negotiate how three cars can turn into a street simultaneously. Drivers here know what to do on a roundabout with five lanes going five different ways. They can handle pedestrians crossing the road and merging traffic (things Australian drivers are not excellent at). On the whole they are polite and good at negotiation.

However, there are exceptions. In central London you’re likely to be angrily tooted as you exit the five-lane roundabout (because, ok, it was your third circulation as you tried to work out which freaking lane you should actually be in). People change lanes in a blink and regularly don’t use their indicators. Sometimes it’s clever driving, sometimes it’s just careless.

But there’s one thing some English drivers do that irritates the heck out of me. It looks like this.

I’m cruising in the middle lane of the motorway a little over the speed limit and the car behind wants to go faster. Logically they should overtake me using the right lane. Instead, a lot of drivers here will sit on my tail and flash their lights until I change lanes. What’s with that? It’s like most English drivers are awfully nice but there’s this subset of really rude ones.

On the whole I have to say they’re pretty good, though. They’re better under pressure than most Aussies; I guess they have to be when there’s 53 million of them crammed in together.

And despite the stress of driving in a foreign country I got a real kick out of it, both on the open road and in the crowded city. Although I admit to enjoying the motorway most, which may have something to do with the below…

Unsure of the speed limit (we did look for signs) we thought we’d copy the others. On the left were the trucks and vans going 60 mph. In the middle 70-80 mph seemed to be the norm. On the right Audis and Mercs zipped by at 90 mph – or more. (For those reading at home, 90 mph is almost 150 km.) Thinking the signs that said “variable speed limit” meant all of the above, we, well, varied our speed limit. Turns out the speed limit is 70 mph.

Another perk of the motorways are huge service stations at regular intervals. Far from the humble outback roadhouse, these giants offer fuel, cafés, newsagents, fast food, pharmacies, and even hotels, all open 24/7. This girl’s used to roadhouses in the middle of nowhere that close at 7:30pm if you’re lucky.

I won’t be back on the road for a while yet (car hire is not economical for the single traveller) but when I do I’ll know what to look out for – and what to enjoy.

walking london

I always expect to walk a lot when I’m travelling, but apparently living here means walking a lot too. It’s the same in most big cities, of course, and London provides few reasons to drive. (I drove in central London today and it was like an adventure park ride; more on that later.) From where I’m staying in Tottenham it’s a ten minute walk to the closest tube station, and from there – wherever you’re going – it’s up and down stairs, changing lines, walking a couple of streets to your destination; it’s constant movement and it’s the easiest way to get around.

Last Friday I discovered that my new phone has a built-in pedometer when it alerted me to the fact that I’d walked 17.7km. This wasn’t an accident; I’d set out with Bonnie and two of her housemates, Charlotte and Ellen, to do a canal walk and as luck would have it, we’d been blessed with the sunniest kind of February day London could muster up. From Camden Markets we strolled along the canal past houseboats and the London Zoo. It’s a pretty enough walk, although I imagine all the prettier in spring and summer. We took a detour up Primrose Hill (alas, no primroses in sight) where a surprisingly wide view of London can be seen, before looping back into Regent’s Park.

Regent’s Park is perhaps the biggest in central London, something like their Central Park (but nothing like Perth’s Kings Park). Schoolboys were doing rugby training and locals were walking their dogs. Birds nests were exposed in the bare branches of trees. We stuck to the path rather than get stuck in the mud; walking on the grass is hazardous here.

After meandering through gardens and across bridges, we passed through Marylebone and Soho – and suddenly we were in Trafalgar Square. You know those moments when you feel like you’ve stepped into a photo, like you’re really, actually, in a place you’ve imagined? This was one of those moments. The Square is majestic; huge statues before roaring fountains, and the National Portrait Gallery looming above it all. I’ll return there later, but this time we pressed on to Embankment and the river. From the Golden Jubilee Bridges above the Thames we could see Westminster, the London Eye, and the National Theatre. We snapped selfies like the tourists we all are from time to time.

I expect I’ll do more long, exploratory walks from time to time, wherever I am. But I enjoy the incidental walking just as much. On Sunday, I headed off on foot to the nearest swimming pool, a convenient twenty minute walk away. Finding the pool broken (yes, really) I set out to find a different one, which took me through a different area of Tottenham – admittedly, one that I’ve been advised not to walk in at night, but different all the same. I didn’t make it to the second pool in the end, but I walked a route I might not have otherwise. I like the local feel, and it’s best discovered on foot.

one last thing

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leaving the country, it’s the art of being ruthless. Which possessions do I love enough to store? How much do I really need to live out of a bag for a year? Would I miss this dress? Is that thermos really irreplaceable? As somebody with the tendency to hoard – and the desire to have less – packing my life into a shed and getting on a plane with a backpack is what I would call practice.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a minimalist, but there’s something to be gained from the principle. With every step in the weeks-long process of packing and moving, I felt myself shedding weight. With each piece of furniture sold, each bag dropped at the op shop, each box packed for storage, my life felt lighter. I’d been vaguely looking for a reason to clear things out for a while and here was the best reason. One that required me to be ruthless. I estimate that I gave away half of my belongings; so far, I don’t miss any of them. The criteria for keeping items were simple: do I love it, or is it irreplaceable/essential? If an item met both criteria, so much the better.

If there’s a second thing I’ve learned from leaving the country, it’s the art of saying goodbye. (Let me state a universal truth here: goodbyes are THE WORST. Who even invented them?) Looking a goodbye in the face is tough, but necessary; it acknowledges what people mean to you.

There’s a common element between being ruthless and saying goodbye (not that I said any ruthless goodbyes). Both require me to let go. To live without some things for a while.

But there is one difference between ruthlessly disposing of belongings and farewelling loved ones. Writing this as the plane pushes back and creeps down the tarmac, it’s not wondering whether I’ve packed enough underpants or forgotten my phone charger that bothers me (neither, by the way). Even my most favourite possessions can be replaced. There’s just one last thing I want to do, and that’s wrap my arms around those people one more time.