At first sight, bell ringing (bell ringers don’t usually call it campanology!) may appear difficult and complicated. We hope that this short introduction will help.
At Almondsbury we have eight bells, located high in the tower in the room above where the ringers stand to ring. The bells swing through a full circle, beginning and ending their swing with their mouth facing upwards. Each rope winds on and off a wheel about one and a half metres in diameter, and the ringer must learn to use the rope to vary the swing of the bell, forcing the bell to sound quicker or slower. Each time the bell swings it will sound its note just once. The bells can swing only slowly, due to their size, so it’s not possible to play ‘tunes’ by this method.
Each bell ringer controls one bell, and even the smallest bell (the one with the highest note) is a lot heavier than the ringer. The heaviest bell in this tower is called the ‘tenor’, weighs 22 cwt (1.12 tonnes) – heavier than a small car! – and measures 51” (130cm) in diameter.
Rather than playing tunes, bell ringers ring ‘changes’. The bells are first ‘raised’ into their mouth-up position – quite a laborious business that you may see at the start of a ringing session. Then, after a short rest, the ringers will start off in ‘rounds’, which is when the bells sound in a simple descending scale, one after the other in sequence.
The bell ringers will be aiming for evenly spaced notes, with just a slight pause after every bell has sounded twice. With all eight bells in use you will hear sixteen notes – a pause – sixteen notes – a pause – sixteen notes, etc. continuously.
After a few descending scales are rung in this way, the real ringing will start. This may be ‘call-changes’, in which one of the ringers, the conductor, will call for selected bells to change places in the order of sounding. Or at a given call from the conductor, the ringers begin to change the order of sounding according to a pre-arranged pattern called a ‘method’.
These ‘methods’ have to be memorised, at first simple ones, then more and more complex. In any method the order of bells is constantly changing, and is never repeated until all the possible orders have been rung.
If four bells are ringing, they can be rung in 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 24 different orders (or ‘permutations’, if you’re more comfortable with a mathematical definition) before a sequence has to be repeated (1234 – 2143 – 2413 – 4231 etc.). With six bells there are 720 orders, with eight bells (as we have here at Almondsbury) there are 40,320 different orders, and to get through them all takes about 28 hours (and it has been done!). Churches with ten or even twelve bells are not uncommon, but we’ll leave you to calculate the permutations!
Each order is called a ‘change’ – which is why we talk of “ringing the changes”. 5000 changes are referred to as a ‘peal’, which takes about three hours to ring. Commemorative peal-boards on the ringing room walls record Almondsbury’s peals.
Why we ring
One reason the bells rung is to calling worshippers to Church. But in addition for a bell ringer, the pleasure is in the fulfilment of the intricate pattern described by the method, with each bell fitting neatly among its fellows.
It might take about five to ten lessons to learn to handle a bell – rather like learning to ride a bicycle. The next stage is learning the bell-control needed to fit in with other bells, and this usually takes about two or three months of weekly practice sessions. During this stage a ringer will learn to ring ‘call-changes’, as described earlier.
Finally there are the ‘methods’ and the mysteries of ‘rope-sight’. Watch any ringer’s eyes as he or she rings – you will see them dart about the circle of ringers all the time. They are watching the other ropes to find the correct place among for their own. For each ‘change’ the ringer must know his/her place in the order, count off the right number of bells which precede him/her and slot in, in his/her space. This stage of learning lasts a lifetime!
The Bell Ringer’s world
Ringers don’t always ring the same bell, nor do they ring at just one tower. There is a constant mingling of bands in the locality. In the summer we go on day-outings to ring the bells at pre-arranged towers around the country, usually about six towers in a day with a pub-lunch at midday. It is a wonderful way to explore the countryside and its churches, and to try one’s hand with unfamiliar bells.
Bell ringing is a rather English thing, invented more than 400 years ago. There are roughly 6,500 towers in the world where bells swing full-circle and methods can be rung. Of these, most are in England. Wales has about 170, Ireland 35 and Scotland 14. Outside the British Isles, Australia has about 30 towers, the USA 20, and the rest are to be found in countries with present or past ties with England. Numbers are constantly changing as redundant bells are restored to full ringing potential, but sadly bells occasionally fall into disrepair.
Anyone can be a Bell Ringer
Perhaps you would like to try bell ringing? It’s not strenuous, but it is good exercise, both physical and mental. Once you can ring call-changes, you can turn up at almost any church and cathedral from Sydney Australia to Washington DC – and Almondsbury! – without notice, and be invited to ring with the local band.
If you would like to learn more about bell ringing at Almondsbury, please contact our Tower Captain (see the Directory in the Parish Lich Gate magazine). Our regular ringing times are: Sunday 8:45am to 9:15am (for service) and Monday 7:30pm to 9pm (our practice evening).
This Introduction is based on one of unknown origin (presumably by a bell ringer) for which we are extremely grateful!