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January 24, 2006

Heavy bells

One of the unique things about the British - or more properly the English - rural scene is the sound of church bells. Unlike the bells heard on the continent, or especially in Italy, which are often rung by a single "Ringer" using a keyboard arrangement which allows him or her to "play" the bells, English bells are hung for ringing by a team. As I have described in the past, this is called "Change Ringing" and is a somewhat unusual and rather skilled art.

The bell frame in Tewkesbury Abbey, with the bell "stays" - the wooden post - visible above the yoke which secures the bell in it's trunions and holds it to the frame.

Bells hung in this manner do not play tunes, and the process of ringing a full peel of changes is highly complex and follows a mathematical progression as the bells change places in the order of the ring as the "change" progresses. A full peel can take several hours as it involves an very large number of permutations in the "changes" during the peel. The more bells you have, the greater the number of "changes" that can be rung in a peel. If you visit the Stoke Poges site, you can see an animated graphic which shows how the bell is controlled - and you can get a lot more information about the patterns for ringing. Even better, with a sound card you can hear their bells ring Grandsire Triples and Grandsire Doubles!

There is technically no limit to the number of bells that can be used for a peel, but the smallest number is usually four. The "Ring" at Tewkesbury is one of the bigger rings in England (there are only around 1640 "Rings" of bells hung in this way worldwide and a little over 1600 of these are in the UK) with twelve bells hung for ringing. Another four, all cast in the late 1690's are now the bells on which the clock strikes the hours and quarters, and a further small bell is hung as the "Sanctus" bell, rung during services at the consecration of the elements during a communion and at twelve noon daily for the "Angelus".

Those who look closely will see that the large wheel has a single rope secured to the "spokes" which passes through the rim and draws along a groove cut into the rim of the wheel. It is this that is used to swing the bell into the "set" position with the "stay" downaward and the bell mouth upward. A sharp tug on the line is then all that is needed to swing the bell 360 degrees allowing the clapper to strike once as it swings. The rope is used to check the swing and hold it on the opposite stay until it is swung again in its new position in the "change".

A fascinating art and a fun pastime for those interested in giving up hours to learn the art and practice the huge variety of "changes" that go into "peels". If you want to learn more about this - or perhaps find out where to join a group near you, try the Central Council of Bellringers website by following the link.

Posted by The Gray Monk at January 24, 2006 08:36 PM

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Ever since I read "The Nine Tailors" by Dorothy Sayers years ago I've been fascinated by this very English way of ringing the bells. Not living in England, though, I've never had an opportunity to actually hear a full peel rung so far. I hope, I'll get the chance one day.

Posted by: The Scarlet Manuka at January 24, 2006 06:05 AM