Researching the links between Dickens and Shakespeare takes me up the tower of Southwark Cathedral which both men knew. Shakespeare, it is said, paid for the tenor bell to be rung for his younger brother's funeral in 1607. Dickens went to bell-ringing practice in the tower one freezing January evening in 1869 and wrote about it in an article in his magazine All The Year Round. He didn't need the money: he wrote in response to some inner compulsive drive. At the time of his visit, he was the most famous living author in the English-speaking world. His health wasn't great and he died the following year aged 58, but still he insisted on high journalistic standards, going along in person, climbing the 100-step spiral staircase, asking questions, taking notes, writing the piece immediately. Some journalists I know would have just made it up.
He didn't hear what Shakespeare heard as the Elizabethan bells had been melted down and recycled by Samuel Knight of Holborn in 1735. But we hear what Dickens heard ; the same bells with the same complex tones have bowled out over the city for more than two hundred and fifty years. I follow the bell-ringers up the corkscrew flight as Dickens did. Vertigo makes me queasy and I think how easy to end it all now as we file along the narrow, fenced-off ledge a hundred feet above the chancel. From here the former Dean's son, a member of the dangerous sports club, launched himself during midnight mass in 2002 dressed as Father Christmas. He aimed to abseil to the Bishop's feet as a surprise but his beard caught in the mechanism and he was left hanging above the packed congregation for the rest of the service. Vertigo doesn't permit me to smile however until we reach the warm carpeted ringing room with views over the city through eight tall Gothic windows. Painted wooden boards on the walls record significant events (mostly very long peals) in the Southwark bell-ringers' history and make the venue a sort of club house. Ringers thought they'd set a record in 1928 and had already celebrated before a zealous job's-worth pointed out that some of their five thousand changes were identical and therefore invalid, so a different crew repeated the feat 75 years later.
The ringers remove their coats, flex their arms and begin. I sit and observe. A ringer tells me to uncross my legs as she is worried that a rope might loop itself round my ankle and yank me ceiling-wards. The twelve bells begin with a scale-wise descent through an octave and a fifth of B flat major, starting with the F, or treble. 'Treble's going,' warns the leader loosening his grip on the rope, 'she's gone,' and all the campanologists follow in increasingly complex patterns. They stand around the edge of the tower room, three women and nine men aged 20 to 60 with concentration on their faces, responding to the conductor's call with adjustments I cannot see but can hear in the altered sequence booming above me in the belfry. The floor moves and the tower shakes as it would in an earthquake. Each ringer stands in fron of a small square mat whose purpose I enquire after but am told, 'we don't talk while we're ringing.' The answer has to wait. The mats are wool which does not fray the rope when it brushes against it on the down stroke, but the carpet is harmfully synthetic. The ringers of the deeper bells stand on boxes of different heights like Olympic medal podia for what reason I have now forgotten. I ask if they are to ring for the Olympic Games. Peter, the leader, says that the proposed scheme to have every bell in the country ringing was not going to happen. 'Some crackpot artist had the idea,' he says, 'but no one thought it through.' He does tell me however that the three London cathedrals will be ringing simultaneously on the opening day 28 July.
Southwark's bells are beaten for heaviness only by those of St Paul's, Peter says proudly. He hands me a pair of ear mufflers and takes me up a wooden flight to the belfry where the bells are swinging exuberantly in their wooden cavities. The 48 cwt tenor bell is fatter than me and nearly as tall. I try to pick out its tone and believe I hear one an octave lower than it actually sounds, so deceptive is the glorious chime. At the end of the 'touch', a twenty-minute sequence as compared to a 'peal' which can last several hours, the tenor bell's ringer below fails to stop the monster by balancing it in the upright position and it rings on alone for several more bongs. The ringers are good, but not that good. 'We got knocked out of the national championships recently,' says Peter self-deprecatingly. We knew we would.' There's some pretty hot teams around. The muscular effort involved in campanology appealed to the old late Dean Colin Slee. He felt it was suitably Olympian. If he'd had his way, Peter says, the simultaneous bell-ringing by the London cathedrals would have been competitive. 'He wanted to make it a fight, a stamina contest to see who could go on the longest.' Dickens would have loved that idea.