Picture: Churchdown, St Bartholomew
Picture: Churchdown, St Bartholomew
The style of bell ringing that we practice dates from the seventeenth century. It had developed gradually over previous centuries despite efforts of the Church to ban all religious bell ringing as part of the Reformation. Indeed, ringing stayed largely apart from the church until the late nineteenth century when associations were set up throughout the country aiming to ensure that church bells were rung primarily to call people to worship and to mark significant Church events.
There are many ways to make a bell sound: the simplest is perhaps to have the bell fixed mouth down (hung 'dead') and strike it with a hammer on the outside; clock bells sound like this. Alternatively the bell is fitted with a clapper inside which is pulled by a rope to swing across and strike it, known as clocking.
To make more noise the bell is swung and struck by a clapper which swings independently within it. The bell is normally pivoted somewhere around its neck and a rope is used to swing it attached to a lever connected to the pivot. This arrangement is known as chiming and is the most common method elsewhere in the world. The time between bell sounds is determined solely by the size of the bell and the time it takes to swing.
Full circle ringing is almost peculiar to Britain and members of the Commonwealth. The lever is replaced by a wheel over which the rope passes and the bell is able to rotate through an entire circle starting from a mouth upwards position. The bell can be stopped completely in this up position. Full rotation gives the maximum sound from a bell because of the higher relative speeds of bell and clapper at the point of striking. Although the ringer has no control over the bell when it is in motion crucially he or she is able to control when it starts its rotation by pulling the rope. This ability allows bells of widely different sizes to ring together in sequences known as change ringing.
Short video showing the bells of Churchdown, Glos. Courtesy of Dave Turner
Ringers are aged from about eight to over ninety. They vary in skill level from absolute novices to seasoned professionals. We must continue to recruit and train new ringers if ringing is to remain a living art. The ringers do not need to be particularly strong, musical or intelligent, but do need to be patient as the physical and mental skills required take some time to learn. The closest analogy to learning to ring is perhaps learning to ride a two wheeled bicycle; it takes about three months to learn on average but once learnt is never forgotten. A band of ringers normally practices for a couple of hours in the evening once a week.
Ringing is enjoyable not only because of the ringing in itself, but also because each band is in itself a caring, Christian community providing friendship and companionship. Few other activities permit people of all ages to mix together on an equal footing. Ringers are also proud of the welcome extended to visitors in almost all towers; the degree of standardisation in the ringing and bell-fittings ensures that they can readily fit in wherever they go.
This web site lists the towers in our Association, quoting the ringing times on Sundays and during the week if there is a practice session. The weight of the heaviest ringing bell, called the tenor, is also given in hundredweight (cwt), except for one - can you find it? 20 cwt equals one (imperial) ton - a little over one metric tonne or 1000 kilograms.