‘No real top of the mountain’: why bellringing is a lifelong love

By Antony Lawes, 29 May 2024
Bellringers at St Patrick's Cathedral, Parramatta, from left, Colin Sweet, Nicolette Axiak, Thomas Perrins and Anna Perrins. Image: Mary Brazell/ Diocese of Parramatta


Nicolette Axiak has been bellringing at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta, for three years and considers herself “still very much in the early days” of mastering the craft. But the continual improvement that she sees in herself every week is one of the reasons she is hooked. 

“The way that you go through all of these different skills and techniques…you can see a lot of progress,” she says. “I just had no anticipation that I’d love it as much as I do.” 

Nicolette is one of a tight-knit group – young and old, experienced and novice – that meets every Wednesday at the Cathedral to hone their skills in the ancient art of bellringing. 

After being developed in the middle ages as a means of calling the faithful to worship, and to mark important events such as weddings and funerals, bellringing continues to flourish in NSW.  

The bellringers of St Patrick’s Cathedral gather for their weekly practice session. Image: Mary Brazell/Diocese of Parramatta

According to Thomas Perrins, the president of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Bellringers, the state has the highest concentration of churches with bell towers – which hold multiple bells – outside the UK. And Sydney is the epicentre of that activity. 

“Every night of the week, there are multiple places which have practice sessions, which you’re welcome to attend, and it’s free,” he says. 

“There’s no real top of the mountain here. I’ve been doing it for 24 years, I’m reasonably experienced but still, I find new challenges.” 

Thomas’ expertise was instrumental in setting up the bell tower in St Patrick’s Cathedral, which was opened in 2020. And he has continued to lead the cathedral’s team of ringers ever since. 

“We are very lucky to have someone of his calibre here teaching us,” Nicolette says. 

Colin Sweet, left, Nicolette Axiak and Thomas Perrins practice one of their pieces. Image: Mary Brazell/Diocese of Parramatta

With eight bells, St Patrick’s does not have the largest belltower in Sydney – that honour belongs to the cathedrals of St Mary’s and St Andrew’s, each with 12 – but it is one of the newest. 

Each week between 12 and 15 regular ringers come to practice from churches all over Sydney – Catholic and non-Catholic – as well as a core group of about five local ringers, of which Nicolette is one.  

The night that Catholic Outlook visited the group at the Cathedral, two ringers were visiting from the UK. 

One of the regular ringers, Stephen Fox, from Turramurra, says he continues to love bellringing because “it’s a bit physical, it’s a bit cerebral, you can never stop learning, and of course it’s a good community as well. Ringers generally know ringers everywhere they go.” 

Despite being a complex form of music, bellringers don’t need to be musical. “It’s all in the numbers,” says Colin Sweet, another long-time ringer in the group. 

Thomas Perrins with one of the eight bells in the Cathedral’s belltower. Image: Mary Brazell/ Diocese of Parramatta

“If you can play Rachmaninov on the piano you will not necessarily become a bellringer.” 

Each bell in the bell tower has a number, and the patterns (or “methods”) of how the bells are rung – the sequence of those numbers – creates the music.  

The most complex of these methods are called peals, which are made up of more than 5000 “changes”. A change is the sequence of each bell in the tower being rung once. 

But for those just starting out, getting the bell to ring at all is hard enough as they are not rung like regular bells. They swing in an arc but are started from a resting upside-down position. 

Nicolette says knowing how hard to pull on the rope to get the bell back to that resting position, and knowing how to hold the rope as it shoots back into the air, takes time to master. 

“When I was first learning just to balance the bells, to gauge the weight of them, it was quite challenging,” she says. 

“There’s a little bit of intimidation at first… because it’s very visible, a lot of people are observing what you’re doing, not just people in here, all of Parramatta can hear you.” 

One of the Cathedral bells in the resting position. Image: Mary Brazell/ Diocese of Parramatta

But she says the support from Thomas and the other ringers is what makes it so enjoyable. 

“Having that community support was probably what allowed me to keep being here today,” she says. “Overcoming that hurdle of not knowing what you’re doing was just aided so much by having a nice group of people around you telling you that you did a great job. 

“It’s a very welcoming community and everyone’s very accepting of new people starting,” she says. 

Most new ringers need several sessions of one-on-one practice to get to the stage of being able to work with other ringers, Thomas says.  

At Wednesday sessions there is a mix of skills and experience, but everyone is always learning. “It’s such a fun thing to be a part of, it’s been a huge part of my life, but people don’t really know about it,” he says. 

 If you would like to try bellringing at St Patrick’s Cathedral, contact Nicolette Axiak – nicoletteaxiak@gmail.com 


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