Imagine entering a bell tower where eight people methodically draw ropes up and down. Bells clang: “Tin tan, din dan, bim bam, bom bum.”1 Have you found a wormhole to seventeenth-century England? Nope. It’s 2012 and you’re in a bell tower in . . . Birmingham, Alabama. Or Kalamazoo, Honolulu, Boston, or Seattle. More than likely there’s one within a day’s drive of your homeschool.2

Nonetheless, it could be a wormhole of sorts. For the curious, the experience might lead down any number of “rabbit trails,” from the London neighborhood of Jack the Ripper, where the Liberty Bell was cast,3 to the bell tower at Old North Church where 15-year-old Paul Revere rang changes4 to vocabulary building (tintinnabulation means “the ringing of bells”) to casting technology and acoustics, and even to the math and physics of change ringing (statistics and braid theory). Experiencing the big bells is wonderful, and it’s entirely possible to get lost in collateral lore.

According to the North American Guild of Change Ringers (NAGCR), interest and participation in “the Exercise” on church bells and handbells has grown in the last decade. Today there are about five hundred change ringers in fifty different societies in North America. With notice they generally welcome visitors for practices and performances. For a list of ringers and contact information, click here.5 To plan your field trip around a special occasion, you might want to consult their events calendar. On July fourth, for example, The Guild of Bellringers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) rings at Old North Church—absent Mr. Revere, of course. A joint concert called “Ring Around Charleston” (South Carolina) is held in February and includes ringers from four different churches, including historic St. Michael’s (est. 1764).6

Here’s what to expect on your field trip:

1. A friendly group of ringers, all ages and occupations. At St. Paul’s, the youngest ringer is a university student, although Jennifer Johnson began her ringing career in her native London at age 11.7 From state to state, and from England to Europe and even to far-flung New Zealand, change ringers are known for their hospitality and willingness to share their love and knowledge of the bells.

2. A ringing room in the bell tower (or “campanile”) where the fluffy ropes (or “sallies”) extend through holes in the ceiling. From here you can’t see the bells. The ringers stand in a circle to perform. Some groups may let you try your hand. It’s not as easy as it looks! Not tall enough? No problem. Boxes of various heights are provided for you to stand on.

3. A view of the great bells and a joyful noise, beautifully odd and anachronistic. The medieval world considered tolling bells as the voice of God, calling the faithful to worship, mourn, or rejoice—their major function still.

The technology that made “change ringing” possible developed in post-Reformation England with the ability to hang a bell on a fully rotating wheel. As the bell rotates, the clapper strikes it on the upswings. Ted Clark, Master Ringer at St. Paul’s, explains: “It takes about two seconds for a bell to swing twice [through] 360 degrees and return to its starting position. The ringer pulls the rope at two points . . . the handstroke and . . . the backstroke.”8 For a demonstration click here.

Now, imagine a circle of people alternately pulling on ropes in never-repeating sequences, and you have change ringing. Click here for a demonstration. Seems simple enough, right? Not so much. The basics can be learned quickly with practice, Clark says; however, he believes what “draws people . . . is that it is so different [from] modern life. It takes an incredibly long time to master the . . . fraction of a second [timing necessary] . . . . No instant gratification here!”