Each bell in a ring—sometimes consisting of as many as twelve bells—is a different size and weight. Each must be precisely tuned, alone and with the others. An eight-bell ring, as at St. Paul’s, covers a complete octave. The “small” treble bell, tuned to F#, weighs as much as a baby elephant at over 400 pounds and is 26 inches across. The large, sonorous tenor—also tuned to F#, but an octave lower—weighs as much as a draft horse at 1,495 pounds and is 48 inches across.10 To simplify learning various “methods” (e.g., Grandsire Triples, Plain Bob Doubles), the bells are numbered, beginning at #1 with the treble bell, and represented on charts called “bluelines.” But there’s also an app for that! Called Mobel, it’s a ringing simulator for an iPhone, iPad Touch, and iPod.11

The method made possible by wheel-hung bells comes with a price. Traditional songs require a quicker and more complex timing that is impossible to render on large, slow bells. About the most you can hope for on five bells is the last line of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” designated as 14235.12

Instead, change ringers aspire to develop the necessary ear, coordination, concentration, and memory to ring what’s called a “peal.” This consists of at least five thousand sequences, none repeated, and can last as long as three hours. On ten bells a complete performance (or “extent”) would consist of more than 3,600,000 changes—or “permutations” in mathematical terms—and take 90 days to complete!13

Many say the world’s best ringers are at Westminster Abbey. Imagine being there in April 2011 for the royal wedding of Prince William and Princess Kate. The ten bells were “swinging and ringing,” “rhyming and chiming.”14 You put your hands over your ears to muffle the sound but still felt the vibrations in your body. What? No imagination? No problem. Here’s a video clip.

Want to take up change ringing but live too far away from a tower band?  The solution might be a handbell group, also listed on the NAGCR site. Without the timing restrictions of the big bells, handbell groups can ring changes and songs.15

Most church bells today can be rung at the push of a button, but for Clark that’s an inferior method. Button-pushing activates hammers that strike stationary bells. “The tonal characteristics,” he says, are completely different. “The bell [that rings as it’s moving] produces more harmonics” and a louder, richer tone.16

“[T]here is,” he continues, “peculiar beauty in imperfection. The best band of ringers will never strike with 100% precision.” Although computers generate “perfect” music, people still prefer to hear a live orchestra.17 The Japanese call this phenomenon “wabi-sabi”: the flawed, human element that paradoxically affirms an art’s authenticity.18 Besides, he says, ringing bells by hand with a group of people “is a lot more fun.”19

Today the church bell is no longer, as it once was, a practical need to mark the divisions of the day or to call a congregation to religious services. In our digital age, there’s something enticing about an expensive and impractical four-hundred-year-old art that not only refuses to die but actually grows. A field trip to a bell tower may be just the thing your homeschoolers need to step back wonderingly into the labyrinth of bell lore and to follow whatever threads interest them into their future.

Endnotes:

1. Sayers, Dorothy L. The Nine Tailors. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1962. 28. Print. (I have taken the sounds of the bells and altered them slightly to suit my purpose.)