Ding Dong Merrily on High

A picture of the bells of Benenden Church, all bar one in the raised position ready for ringing.
The bells of Benenden Parish Church – contributed by the author

The Sound of Church Bells

At Christmastide people notice the sound of church bells as a part of the general festive ambience. Yet remarkably few ordinary people know how the sounds are actually produced. Ask the average person in the street and the vague reply might be “I expect it’s done by some sort of machine…” 

Yet this is a highly skilled and musical craft, unique to England, and a few other places where English settlers built churches with towers. English change-ringing with large bells is every bit as challenging and demanding as any conventional musical instrument.

Practitioners dedicate a significant part of their lives to learning, practising, perfecting, and performing this unique national musical art before a public often indifferent to their dedicated efforts. But, at other times, especially at Christmas, some people feel their spirits lift by this wonderful sound rolling across village meadows or over city roofs.

A History of the Bell

Bells themselves are among the most ancient musical instruments. Four thousand years ago, expert Chinese founders were casting large bronze bells. In the West, the distinctive and iconic shape of the western church bell, emerged around a thousand years ago after much trial and a lot of error.

Why is a bell that distinctive shape?

A metallurgist would probably explain, that it can be thought of as an infinite series of vibrating rings of different diameters melded together in the same metal, the different diameters of which combine to produce the very complex musical harmonics (at least five of them) that make up the distinctive bell sound.

In a modern bell, these harmonics can be tuned by adjusting the thickness of each notional “ring” by removing metal at specific points inside the bell on a tuning lathe, upon which the bell rotates against a cutting tool. A scientific and repeatable formula for accurate tuning in this way was only finally perfected in the year 1899 by Taylors of Loughborough.

Prior to that tuning was a pretty hit and miss affair which does at least ensure, for the ringer and listener, that every single ring of bells in every tower has its own unique sound quality (affected also by the materials and shape of the tower as well) which is appreciated and compared with others by ringers, much as do the aficionados of, say, a good wine.

The Use of Bells

Prior to the electronic age, a church bell was the loudest and furthest-carrying man-made sound for most communities in Europe. In ages prior to the universal digital watch bells had the vital community function of marking important times of day, whether religious, domestic or industrial, and acting on occasion as an alarm or warning to the community.

How to Sound a Bell

The simplest way of sounding a bell, is to hang it on a rope and bang it with a hammer (or, as in Eastern temples, a heavy suspended wooden beam). But there is a limit on how much sound can be got out in that way. If the bell is suspended from a beam with bearings so that it can be swung, and if there hangs from its crown inside a freely suspended clapper, then the motion of the bell impels a far stronger impact on the soundbow of the bell.

And if it is also hung from a high tower, then the sound will carry for miles. Furthermore, this swinging can be controlled from the ground floor by a rope, so no need to climb the tower in the freezing cold and chant, like Islam’s muezzin. Bell sounds carry much further than chants so no wonder Islam banned the ringing of church bells under its sovereignty!

“Frame High” for 180º

Sometime during the Middle Ages, it was realised, that the higher a bell can be swung, the greater the impact of the clapper. The problem was that there is only so high one can swing a bell, with just a simple lever and rope. To swing it higher, the medieval bell hanger added a section of a wheel above the lever.

By the end of the Middle Ages, this had developed into a half-wheel, allowing the bell to be swung “frame high” up to 180 degrees.

Full Wheel for 360º

We simply do not know who the mechanical genius was who first fitted a large church bell with a full wheel, so that the bell could be rung through a full circle, striking mouth upwards. Best guess is probably a Londoner, and probably during the late 16th century. 

Almost certainly this was done simply to make the bell yet louder; yet it was the critical development, since it allowed the bell to be accurately controlled around its upward point of balance, permitting a skilled ringer either to delay, or speed up, the moment of its striking.

For the first time a number of bells could be controlled such as to permit their being rung in a predictable order, rather than randomly jangling. The rotation of the bell in each direction gives two different strokes on the rope – the “handstroke” in which the ringer pulls on the coloured woollen part of the rope called the “sally”; and the “backstroke”, pulled on the doubled tail end of the rope.

At first they were rung, naturally enough, down the musical scale, called “rounds”, which to this day form the start and end of all change ringing. But soon enough ringers realised they could swap adjacent pairs of bells over by a word of command, producing different orders or “changes”, and it was not long before they also realised that sets of such changes could be prelearned by each ringer and rung without any individual command at all.

First Treatises on Change-Ringing

This realisation came in the later 16th century, precisely coinciding with the age of Newton, the Royal Society, and an explosion of interest in mathematics and pattern; and it was at this time that the first published treatises on change ringing appeared.  

Ringers soon realised that there is a definite number of different changes possible on any given number of bells: 120 on five bells, 720 on six, and 5,040 on seven (actually rung on eight bells with the largest (Tenor) bell rung continually behind the changing seven).

It became a race to become the first band to ring a true 5,040 and, when this was achieved at the end of the century, this number set the performance standard for all time to come; called a “peal”.

Full Peals, Quarter-Peals, and Touches

A 5,040 takes around three hours to ring and it is the aspiration of all keen ringers to ring a peal well.  Many ringers however content themselves with the less demanding length of a quarter-peal of 1,250 changes in about 45 minutes and very suitable for ringing before a church service. More normally though, in practice and service ringing, short pieces, called “touches” of a few minutes’ duration each are rung.

How is it possible for one ringer to memorise 5,000+ changes? The answer is he doesn’t have to. The changes are highly structured into memorable patterns, called “methods”, which are what is actually learned, of perhaps 180 changes or so, depending on the number of bells being rung.

All the ringer has to do is to ring this pattern plus small variations, called “bobs” and “singles” called by the conductor which shifts two or three bells into different positions and generates a different set of changes.

What the Conductor Needs to Know

The conductor doesn’t need to know which changes he is generating thereby. In addition to learning the “method” like any other ringer, he must also learn the “composition”, which is exactly where to call the bobs and singles; and as these, too, often follow a repeating pattern, it is usually not too difficult.

There are tens of thousands of methods registered with the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, and hundreds of thousands more yet to be discovered, rung, and named. A small number of these are regarded as “standard methods”, held in memory by most proficient ringers, which can be rung without notice. Others are learned for a particular peal or quarter, and then probably forgotten afterwards.

Bell-ringing is not Just for Church

One of the historical oddities of English change ringing is that, despite being based in a church, it is historically a secular musical pastime. It was developed after the Reformation which forbade by law the ringing of more than a single bell for a church service. So ringers rang for local and national events, weddings, practice and as a public musical performance, as indeed they still do.

It was not until the Oxford Movement of the mid-nineteenth century, that reforming vicars firmly took charge of their exclusively male ringers (often drunk), and recruited them to ring for church services, as they still do, although there is no obligation to attend the church service.

The first lady ringers emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century, with the first all-ladies peals being rung then. Today there are roughly equal numbers of the sexes in belfries, with women taking an equal role in leading and conducting bands.

Ringing the Changes

Change ringing can also be performed on handbells. A ringer holds a handbell in each hand and has two complex patterns to follow, with the relationship between the two to hold in memory. While related to the single pattern of tower bell ringing, it is really a separate art.

A recent technical development is the ringing simulator, which allows a ringer to ring in the bell-tower on a silenced bell without disturbing the neighbours, while viewing on a large screen before him a “virtual band” ringing with him, who have the great advantage of ringing perfectly for as long as desired without ever getting fed up or wanting to go off to the pub!

Plenty of Room for More Ringers

Thus bell-ringing  is a unique traditional musical art which is still carried forward into new techniques and sounds by dedicated local bands, which hopefully please at least some of the surrounding community. 

There are some 272 bell-towers in Kent with ringable bells. Anyone who is interested in becoming a ringer, is recommended to the website of the Kent County Association of Change Ringers for information on how to start at your nearest active tower.

Benenden Parish Church, with its belltower
Benenden Parish Church, with its belltower – photo provided by the author

Enjoy the sound of your church bells this Christmas and New Year, and support your ringers; they bear a precious and unique heritage. And maybe, just maybe, think about joining them.