A GROUP of bell ringers from Hexham Abbey have joined forces with local composers, musicians and singers at the Holy Trinity Church in Sunderland for a sound installation which will recreate a peal from 1898.

Long-time bell ringer Neville Parkin has been ringing the Hexham Abbey bells for 33 years alongside his wife Anne. In December 2017 their campanology expertise, along with tower captain Clive Moon’s, was called upon by visual artist Matt Stokes for a sound installation called Gogmagog – Voice of the Bells.

Matt was inspired to create the installation after a visit to the Holy Trinity Church, where he stumbled across composer Benjamin Annable’s “Plain Bob Triples” peal board in the tower, and decided to recruit a team of bell ringers who could recreate the sound 300 years on.

With the church bells being silenced in a state of disrepair however, Matt and his team had to get experimental.

This was when the Hexham Abbey bell ringers were called upon, and together they recreated and recorded Annable’s “Plain Bob Triples” through the use of hand bells, which mimic what the tower bells would have sounded like in the original peal. A new musical composition created by Marty Longstaff and Jordan Miller was also played alongside the hand bell peal, and the special occasion was marked by adding the composition’s peal board to the church’s bell tower.

Neville, who played the hand bell in the band, has rung over 500 tower bells and 250 hand bells across the world, but said he had never been involved in anything quite like Gogmagog.

“It was challenging to find a hand bell which fitted the key of the church’s tower bells,” he said, “and it took some experimenting with the recording equipment to get the sound just right. The music composed for the piece was exceptional, and brings in themes of darkness and disease as well as hope and celebration.”

His passion for bell ringing began when he was 11 years old, after joining the choir at his local church in Leeds.

“It was the sound,” he said, “and the love for the rhythm and mathematical complications which come with figuring out the rhythm.

“As my wife once said, when the rhythm is flowing it can be like having an out-of-body experience.”

Sound is now more important than ever for him, because his sight has been fading for a number of years.

He said: “Sometimes whilst I’m in the chamber, the other bell-ringers look like phantoms to me, so I am now solely relying on sound and rhythm.”

But Neville hasn’t let his deteriorating eyesight affect his passion for campanology. He continues to climb up the Abbey’s 100 steps to the ringing chamber, and sometimes a further 50 to the bells themselves. He also participates in organised group trips abroad with his fellow abbey bell ringers.

“We have a team of 20 people,” Neville said, “and we all come from different backgrounds and occupations, our oldest member is 80 whilst our youngest is 16.

We welcome people of all abilities and experience, but I’d love more young people to become inspired or keen to take up bell ringing, and Hexham Abbey is a great place for beginners to learn because of our wonderful bells.”

It was in fact due to bell ringing that Neville met his wife Anne, at the Old Souls Church in Halifax, and the two have been bell ringing together around the world ever since.

The couple got a chance to ring in St Paul’s Cathedral for Neville’s birthday, but that was just one impressive place he has had a chance to perform at.

“I have rung bells at York Minister, Melbourne Cathedral and Washington Cathedral,” Neville said. “Once you can understand the methods behind bell ringing, you can learn to play anywhere.”

Neville has also had a chance to compose two peals at Hexham Abbey. One was to mark the departure of Canon Michael Nelson from the abbey in 2003, and the other was a memorial peal for the 9/11 disaster. His peals are commemorated with his own plaque in the Abbey’s bell ringing chamber.

Holy Trinity Church, Sunderland will be open for Gogmagog – Voices of the Bells every weekend until September 23.