Bells are the voice of the church; they have tones that touch and search the hearts of young and old.
Three times a week, 60 feet above the ground in the South West tower of Canterbury Cathedral, the bell ringers practise the peculiarly British art of change ringing. (Of the 7,300 towers world-wide equipped for change-ringing, only 81 towers lie outside of the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man). The ringers are a diverse group of over 30 people, from students to octogenarians. Many first learned the skill while in their teens. Donald Niblett, a former Captain of the ringers, followed his brother in learning to ring soon after the Second World War, when there was a plea for people to take up campanology after the wartime ringing ban had been lifted. Michael Wetherilt first tried ringing after reading The Nine Taylors by Dorothy L Sayers. Anne Oakley wanted to avoid Sunday afternoon tea at home and so went to her local tower, St Michael’s Headingley, and learned to ring. What all these ringers have in common is a shared love of both of ringing and of the Cathedral. When asked what it meant to ring at the Cathedral, Peter Dale answered that it was a privilege, not something to be taken for granted; this was echoed by Bro Austin, who spoke of ringing being a service to the Church – the bells calling people to worship and reminding them that church buildings are not merely heritage buildings but used for worship, week in, week out.
Change ringing is a particular way of ringing bells, which has developed since the early 17th century. Instead of each bell in a tower ringing at its own speed, sometimes causing clashes as several bells ring at once, in change ringing the swinging of the bells are carefully timed so as to produce a steady rhythm of individually sounding bells. This is achieved by making the bells, which hang in a metal frame, swing through an arc of 360º, ie a full circle, and then swing back, again through a full circle. By ringing in this way, the moment when each bell sounds can be controlled by the ringer, who does so using a stout rope attached to a wheel that is fitted around the bell’s headstock. To see a short Youtube film showing the bells of Westminster Abbey ringing for the Royal Wedding in 2011, click here. Alternatively, this site gives a pictorial representation of bells ringing full circle.
The order in which the bells ring should change constantly; no two changes should be identical. There are hundreds of methods of change ringing, many of which have curious names such as Kent Treble Bob Major (as featured in The Nine Taylors) or Marvin the Paranoid Android Minor; some have slightly more dubious names such as Titanic Cinques (pronounced sinks).
The Cathedral has 22 bells altogether; the bell of HMS Canterbury which is sited currently in the South East transept and is rung every weekday at the time when a page in the books of Remembrance is turned; Bell Harry on top of, err, Bell Harry tower; there are five bells in the North West tower for striking the quarters, plus Great Dunstan – the Cathedral’s largest bell, which weighs over three tons and strikes the hour, as well as ringing for some services; and, in the South West tower, there are 14 bells hung for change ringing. The heaviest of these bells, known as the tenor, weighs just under 1¾ tons. That is about the same weight as a Ford Focus; imagine having a motorcar swinging backwards and forwards 30 feet above your head which you have to control just using a rope!
The timelessness of the tradition is important.
I often think of the generations of ringers who have been here before me.
Apart from the introduction of ball bearings, and having a metal bell frame rather than one made of timber, very little has changed in the mechanics of ringing for more than 300 years. That sense of timelessness is one of the joys of ringing. When the rhythm is right, and the ringers’ attention is focused, and the bells are in a good mood, then it is easy to lose all sense of time when ringing; the sound of the bells, as they dance around each other in a seamless progression, induces silent contentment. The hope of again achieving that perfection is one reason why ringers return week after week to their towers.
You can find out about which towers near you have bells by looking at Dove’s Guide. If you would like to know more about ringing, or are tempted to have a go, please contact Christopher Robinson and he will try to introduce you to a tower near you.