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!”9
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.
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.)
2. The North American Guild of Change Ringers (NAGCR). Nov. 4, 2011. www.nagcr.org.
3. “History and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.” The Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd. Web. Nov. 4, 2011. www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk/history.htm.
4. The Old North Church. Web. Nov. 4, 2011. www.oldnorth.com/history/bellringing.htm.
6. Ibid. Calendar page.
7. E-mail from Ted Clark, Master Ringer at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Jan. 25, 2012.
8. Author interview with Ted Clark by email, Nov. 20, 2011.
10. “About the Bells.” The Tower Bells at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. www.birminghambells.org/bells.html.
11. “Mobel, a Belfry in your Pocket.” Abel, Mabel and Mobel Ringing Simulators. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. www.abelsim.co.uk/MobelNews.htm.
12. Email from Ted Clark, Feb. 3, 2012.
13. “Bells and Bellringing.” The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR). Web. 02 Feb. 2012. cccbr.org.uk/pr/pubs/bellsandbellringing. “Time taken to ring the Extent on different numbers of bells.”
14. “Edgar Allen Poe: The Bells.” Fordham.edu. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. www.fordham.edu/halsall/medny/venturi-poebells.html.
16. Interview with Ted Clark, Oct. 25, 2011.
18. “Wabi and Sabi: The Aesthetics of Solitude.” Articles: House of Solitude—Hermitary. Hermitary: The Hermit, Hermits, Eremitism, Solitude, Silence, Anchorites, Recluses, Simplicity. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. www.hermitary.com/solitude/wabisabi.html.
19. Interview with Ted Clark, Oct. 25, 2011.
Sara Hill is a wife of thirty-seven years and mother of three daughters, the youngest of whom she homeschooled through fourth grade. She’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and blogs about her three grandchildren and her second career as a writer at thewritershadeofpale.blogspot.com.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
Publication date: November 7, 2013