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Thursday 9 March 2023

Documenting the hidden world of the bell ringers: making a peal board


Peal board at st James church Mangotsfield

What is a peal board?

Well, before this commission in 2022 I'd never heard of one either. Making it gave a chance to see a tiny glimpse of something that most people outside of bell ringing never see. In this post we go up the stairs in the church tower, through a small door and into the bell loft to have a glimpse at the hidden world of the bell ringers.

Bell ringing ropes hanging in the bell loft of St James' church, Mangotsfield

Bells are traditionally rung to call people to worship in Christian churches in Britain. Ringing developed from the use of a single bell to several, which are rung in complicated patterns that require a lot of skill from all participants to play accurately. Each ringer in the tower will play a single bell by pulling on a rope to make it swing, so that the sound fits in with the pattern being played.

A peal board is a wooden panel made to record special sessions of bell ringing. These sessions may last for two or more hours and are done very occasionally to commemorate particular events or people, usually having a close connection to that church or bell ringing group. The board shows information such as who rang the peal, what pattern was rung and who or what was being commemorated amongst other things.

The commissioned board was made from a solid oak panel fitted into an oak frame and will be hung alongside others in the bell loft, where the ropes used in ringing hang down from the bells above. You can see some other boards and bell ropes in the picture above, along with images of previous bell ringers and Tower Captains (head bell ringers) associated with the church of St James, in Mangotsfield on the edge of Bristol.

bell ringers rules

I was commissioned by Jon, the Tower Captain at St James, to make this peal board. He also very kindly showed me around the bell tower there. 

St James church, Mangotsfield, Bristol

The tower dates back to the fourteenth century, the spire was added in the nineteenth century but the bells are more recent. They were first cast in 1922 but were taken down and recast in 1992 at John Taylor and Co in Loughborough. 

To have a look at them, we climbed up a ladder from the bell loft and then through a hatch. Next came a clamber up and through the steel frame that houses the eight bells. This frame is unusual in that it sits at an angle in the tower in order to fit.

Bells in St James church, Mangotsfield, Bristol

After going out through another small door, we had a fine view from the tower over the surrounding houses to the Gloucestershire countryside beyond.

Mangotsfield, Bristol

The oldest peal board in St James goes back to 1922, when the bells were first installed, although some in other churches are apparently much older. The one I made will be there for as long as bells are rung in the tower and I'm sure that, given its particular interest to certain people, would be a collector's item after that. It occurred to me that these peal boards are important documents of the history of ringing in that bell tower. 

Woodcarver painting carved design

I wanted to carve and paint part of the design to record this so, after discussions with Jon, the frame now features an image of the actual tenor bell which hangs above it, along with bell ropes and sallies (the wider, colourful grips on the ropes) in the colours of the ones presently in the church. There is text painted on the reverse of the frame recording who made the board and where it was originally hung.

  Text on reverse of peal board

I wonder who will be surprised, after taking down the panel perhaps hundreds of years from now, to see this text. What will the world around them look like by then?

Friday 11 March 2022

'New Beginnings' - collaborating with artist Luke Jerram on his new sculpture in Bristol


Luke Jerram sculpture New Beginnings

Luke Jerram is a Bristol-based artist (on the left in the photo above) whose work is known around the world. So it was very exciting to be invited to collaborate with him in the making of a new experimental sculpture, which is called 'New Beginnings' and is now installed at Ashton Court in Bristol.

The sculpture was carved from locally-sourced sequoia wood, which was then carved and assembled at my workshop next to the Ashton Court estate. Visitors are invited to use the pliers and hammer provided to add their own small-denomination coins to the sculpture and to make a wish while tapping them in.

Luke says that "I love idea of a seed: as a capsule of information and an object of potential that contains everything inside, a plant needs to grow. I hope the public enjoy interacting with this new sculpture and it acts as a capsule for their hopes, dreams and imagination!"

The project, which is hoped to be the first in a series, was inspired by 'wishing trees': these are trees or stumps (usually dead) which have coins pushed or knocked into them for luck. The tradition is thought to be at least a couple of hundred years old. Here is an example from Portmeirion in Wales:

wishing tree portmeirion

...and another from near the village of Uley, on the edge of the Cotswolds:

uley bury wishing tree

wishing tree ally

I'm looking forward to seeing how the sculpture changes over time as more coins are added! If you are in Bristol you could visit the beautiful estate, which is open to the public and free, then add your own coin and wish if you'd like to.

Thursday 10 January 2019

Inuit stone carving - a detective story

inuit carving by pauloosie weetaluktuk

When I was much, much younger, long before I discovered carving, my father came into the room one day and gave me a stone sculpture of a person holding a sack. My great-aunt Mary had died and the small statue was passed on from her to me.

The Inuit figure had been brought back from Canada by my grandmother in about 1965. That was really all that was known about it. As I learnt more about carving generally, the sculpture interested and intrigued me more and more.

paulousie weetaluktuk sculpture carving

The weight and shape of the dark serpentine, veined with greenish tints and flecked with red, make it so pleasing to hold in one hand. It was clear that someone had worked the design around the shape of the original stone: the dents and depressions of that rock were still visible, albeit smoothed out. 

pauloosie weetaluktuk sculpture

On the base was carved the number 1760. I knew that it wouldn't be a date mark but was it a catalogue number?

Who had carved this mysterious sculpture and where? For years I didn't know. Even a trip to the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa failed to turn up anything, with the resident expert being out on that day and subsequent email enquiries to him going unanswered. 

Reading books on the subject showed that the sculpture probably came from around the east coast of Hudson Bay but that was about it.

Paulosie Weetaluktuk

Then I learnt about disc numbers.

Disc numbers were used from 1941 to 1972 (or 1978 in Quebec) and were introduced to help various organisations (such as government agencies) to identify Inuit individuals. Before then people would have one name, given to them by elders. When missionaries arrived, many Inuit took Christian names but often altered them to make them sound more local: so Thomas might become Tumasi. 

After the Mounted Police census in the 1940s, identification numbers were assigned to each person and were often used as signatures by Inuit carvers in the 1950s and '60s. The numbers (preceded by an E for east or W for west) were also stamped onto discs which would be worn around the neck or sewn into a parka. This practice was phased out after surnames became officially adopted by Inuit in 1969. 

Image from:

Using a site that traces Inuit artists by their disc numbers, I discovered that my carving had been made by Pauloosie (or Paulosie) Weetaluktuk. He was born in 1938, died in 2012 and lived at Inukjuak, a town on the east coast of Hudson Bay which was formerly known as Port Harrison. 

I haven't been able to find any photos of Pauloosie Weetaluktuk that show his face, but have found a presentation that he gave as a member of the 'local grocers' association' to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in June 1992. It gives interesting glimpses of his life as a carver in a place very different to that in which I live.

He talked through a translator as he didn't read or understand English. The main topic was the high cost of living in such a remote place (he said that it was three or four times higher than in more southerly parts of Canada) and how that makes it difficult to survive there. The increases in taxes and high living costs mean that carvings 'do not make much money' any more and it is tough selling skins and handicrafts as there is 'hardly any value in them'.

Pauloosie Weetaluktuk said that: 'Our operating budget has to be very high these days. There are people who have never been employed in their lives, who have depended on carving and they were able hunters, but now that the price of carving has gone down, you just see them as men but they don't operate as men any more. They don't have anything to base their lives on or their manhood on.' 

Sometimes it can be easy to forget the hardships that the people who created a carving might have faced in making a living. This presentation cuts through any of that to show how tough supporting oneself was at that time and in that place. I wonder if things are any better there now? 

I wish that I could have met Pauloosie Weetaluktuk, creator of this beautiful sculpture that has meant a lot to me for a long time, and told him what I've just told you

Monday 3 December 2018

Woody street art in Bristol

Bristol has a lot of interesting street art away from the Banksy pieces that many people know and the large works done for Upfest in Southville. 

Easton, in the east of the city, has a lot of stuff by less well-known artists scattered through its alleyways and corners. These two pieces have appeared on walls around Bellevue Road. 

Bristol street art

Bristol street art

I like them, especially as to my eye they bring together woodworking and street art!

Saturday 17 November 2018

Green men and a bowing crow - 'In the Downbelow'

I went into the crypt under the church of St John on the Wall in Bristol today, to see 'In the Downbelow', the latest exhibition by the sculptor and model maker Tom Astley

st john on the wall crypt

The crypt dates back to the early 14th century and one of the highlights of the place, for me, was the collection of carved green man faces on the roof bosses. They are quite low down compared to most churches and cathedrals, so can be easily studied from floor level.

st john on the wall green men

This one has a fine set on teeth on show!

The crypt is very atmospheric and had inspired Tom to create some artworks especially to display in this space. It was interesting to see his new pieces, showing the distinctive style that he's developed.

This sculpture is entitled 'Plague doctor' and was based on the physicians, with their strange beaked masks, who tended to victims of the Black Death.

plague doctor tom Astley

The sculpture 'Lady of Letters' came about because a tomb effigy of a wealthy noblewoman in the crypt shows her writing kit tied to her waist.

This 'Lord of Misrule' has a paper crown and would take over his duties during the Festival of St Stephen. The tradition lasted in Britain until the sixteenth century. Other images based on the idea can be seen amongst the misericords in Bristol Cathedral.

lord of misrule Tom Astley

The final sculpture in the exhibition was inspired by the green men carved overhead.

green man tom Astley

You might agree that the darkly atmospheric artworks fit perfectly in the vaulted stone space of the crypt. 

'In the Downbelow' runs from the 17th to the 30th November and is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am until 6pm.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

The Binaural Diaries visit the woodyard - field recording the sounds of woodworking

The Binaural Diaries is a project run by Ollie Hall. He records sounds and publishes them online. It started as a way of collecting interesting samples for music but has developed into more of a sound diary: 'binaural' refers to two microphones recording sounds which are transmitted separately to the two ears of the listener.

field recording sounds

I chose a few sounds that woodworkers might know but those who don't work with wood may not be aware of. The recordings are of: a sharp woodcarving gouge cutting through seasoned lime wood, detail carving in oak, a side axe cutting larch wood, a drawknife in use on larch and wood being cleaved using a froe and mallet. There was also the chance to talk very briefly about what I was doing in each recording.

It's interesting to think about what you do from a completely different viewpoint. I realised that many of the sounds made in woodworking were things that had previously been taken for granted but which added to the whole process. There is a real satisfaction gained from hearing a tool cut cleanly and some sounds indicate when a change needs to be made (for example, cutting from a different direction as the grain pattern changes). 

Spoon carving at Boiling Wells in Bristol, with the Boiling Wellness group

In July, I got the welcome chance to return to Boiling Wells in St Werburghs to teach spoon carving. 

After four and a half years working there, funding cuts meant that I was made redundant in 2014. I had been back a couple of times to teach since then and it is always good to see the place develop and grow.

This time, I was spoon carving with the 'Boiling wellness' group. It was great to be back in the nature reserve, carving wood with enthusiastic volunteers. We had a lot of fun and everyone got the chance to try a range of woodworking tools, some of which they might not have come across otherwise.

Doing spoon carving sessions with groups is always interesting as people come up with such a range of designs and styles when given the chance to do so. Once they had got the hang of using the tools safely, there was plenty of room for creativity to come out; working with the grain patterns in the wood for example. I hope that people have had the chance to finish their spoons with the techniques we discussed and that they all enjoyed the day as much as I did!