Look, I’ll be honest. This is going to be one nerdy post. If 400-year-old traditions are not really your thing, feel free to tune out and tune back in next week when I write about street art and hip-hop, yo. (Which I won’t, I’m just trying to be cool guys. Guys?)
I’ve never thought much about bellringing before, it’s not really a thing in Australia, but here in England, every village has a church and every church has bells, and those bells need ringing. It’s a community activity. And it’s kind of fascinating.
I’ve always enjoyed the sound of bells pealing, so when I have the chance to watch the local bellringers practise I think, why not? Up I climb into the belfry of “St Scoliosis” (as it’s affectionately called by my friends in Cleobury Mortimer due to its twisted spire) and watch them go through their paces.
If there’s one thing you should know about bellringing it’s this: it is complicated. Like a lot of things, there’s a code and a terminology you have to crack in order to enter, and perhaps after that it gets easier, but I wouldn’t know because this is how it looks to me when I walk in:
Six people (in this case) stand in a circle and proceed to pull on the bell ropes hanging from the ceiling, making a giant clanging noise for a few minutes. After this the leader announces, “Plain Bob” or “Grandsire”, or some other charming name like “Francis Genius Delight” or “London Surprise”. Somebody might say, “Fourth in the hunt” or “Second run in” or something like that, and a recognisable downward peal begins, from high to low. After a while I notice the pattern has changed, and continues to change. People pull the ropes at different times, and as I tune my ear to each bell it starts to look less random. Occasionally someone calls “Up!” or “Go next!” After about ten minutes they return to the original downward peal, the leader calls “Stand!” and they stop.
“We just rang 120 changes,” Alec the leader of the Cleobury ringers tells me. It sounds like a lot but he has also informed me that with six bells up to 720 changes are possible. This is one thing I learn: that the correct term for the order in which the bells are rung is a “change”.
That clanging at the beginning and end? They’re pulling the bells up before they start ringing, and returning them back down when they’re finished practising. Turns out bells are rung in an upside down position and it takes a few minutes of gathering momentum to get them there. When it comes time to strike a note, each pull on the rope – the “handstroke” and the “backstroke” – brings the bell around 360 degrees, “mouth up to mouth up”. I guess that’s how you get that big beautiful “gong”. I believe gong is not a technical term.
Before this I thought it must be just like music: each ringer is a note on the page and they play their notes in different orders depending on the song. This is correct for about three seconds – the time it takes to ring through the six bells once. It’s so much more involved and technical than that. Each composition is not a linear sequence of notes like in a melody, but a series of changes. The ringers are regularly moving around each other, swapping the order in which they ring their bells, all from memory. They also understand sentences like, “All working bells plain hunt everywhere except at the lead end where 2nd’s place is made, causing bells in higher positions to dodge.”
At that point, I just sit back and enjoy the gorgeous sound.
Next week: the history of bookbinding. (Kidding!)