Quintessentially English: Bell-Ringing


Churches and bell-ringing go together like love and marriage. It’s not as easy as it looks, nor is it as difficult as you might imagine – let me explain…

The church where I ring is All Saints, a large church dating back, in its present design, to the Reign of Charles II. This is the era of its rebuilding after the Great Fire of Northampton. A Church has been on the site at least since the granting of the Borough Charter in 1189, when Crusader Knights swore allegiance at the church’s High Altar. The church has been described by Simon Jenkins as ’the finest example of Restoration church architecture outside of London’. Charles II contributed ‘one thousand tun’ of the timber needed for the rebuilding, and, even today, a statue of the king on the outer terrace is crowned with a wreath on Oak Apple day.

The bell ringing team, or band, as they are called, cover several churches in Northamptonshire, in order that all the church bells are rung.  Indeed, bell ringers, quite rightly, consider that they are performing an important service to the community and that it is unconscionable neglect for working bells to go unrung.  Less than ten minutes’ walk from All Saints is St Peter’s – the only Norman church of its kind in the country; it has no separation between nave and chancel. Although no longer in regular use, with only occasional services held, it is attached to All Saints. Just from here, further North within fifteen minutes’ walk is Holy Sepulchre, one of the few round churches in the country, after the Jerusalem church. Also a former knights’ Crusader church, it still serves as the ‘soldiers church’. Northampton Castle was an important castle in the middle ages, and these churches are on the periphery of its former site.

Learners have to practice first with the bell clappers – which strike the bell – tied, before they can ring proper. Not surprisingly, rank amateurs with their equivalent of bell-ringing caterwauling cannot be inflicted upon innocent citizens. A level of competence should be achieved first. Of course, even if you get the pulling wrong, it won’t affect the sound of a bell, but a constant single tolling would cause annoyance if a ringer practised alone and the learner has to have the competence to join with other ringers in order to practise properly.

English change ringing has been described as ‘special and unique’, although Anglican influence now sees it being practised in places such as Australia, Canada and the U.S., as well as other countries in the Commonwealth. More precise control of the bell, which had evolved from the middle ages into the Tudor period by means of then-special technologies which attached a bell to a wheel, meant that they could be rung at a speed, and to sound before and after other bells, and in a repeated and rhythmic pattern. In contrast, the Carillon bells on the Continent produce a random sound as they cannot be made to ring at this sound or speed.

There are 30 narrow steps up to the bell-ringers’ tower at All Saints, which is a small room, with window seating around the wall. The ropes for 10 bells hang down, in a round shape, but not quite circular. Fifteen further steps upwards from this room, and then partly up a window ladder is the bell tower itself with the 10 bells. Climbing here, for somebody with vertigo, can be a queasy experience.

All the bells look mighty, but the mightiest of all is the Tenor. The bell weights range from the lightest at 4 hundredweight and 26 pounds, to the Tenor’s weight of 17 Hundredweight and four pounds. Ringing the Tenor has been likened to swinging a car around. Put in perspective, the heaviest and highest ringing bells are those of Liverpool Cathedral with a Tenor bell; Great George of about 82 hundred weight, 11 lb, or 4.1 tonnes. It cannot be rung but is struck with a hammer to chime. In fact, Liverpool Cathedral has thirteen bells, and although there are higher, and heavier bells than this, they are no longer rung because of damage or the sheer impracticality.  The Decibel level of Liverpool’s bells is put at 110!  It is London’s St Paul’s Cathedral which has the heaviest tenor, known as Great Paul, but it is no longer operable because of a broken chiming mechanism.

The bells are attached to a wooden wheel larger than the bell itself, in order that the bell can swing upwards and then return downwards. Bearings are now used to allow the bell to rotate easily into the right position, and if the bell is mishandled, coming forcefully to rest, an attachment a bit like a stick, which is longer than the top of the bell, usually wooden but now sometimes metal, (and called a ‘stay’) will break first. The stay and the slider combined keep the bell in an upright position. Snapped stays are replaced. Without the stay, a bell could go up and over the ‘balance’ and swing out of control. A rope goes through a garter hole on the bell which is attached to a rope that the bell-ringer holds. The slider moves between the two end points, at the bottom end when the bell is in a downward position, and this, along with the stay, allows the bell to be parked upwards. The rope of the bell has a tail-end, which is, as you might expect, at the very bottom. The longish bit, from about low waist level, to above the ringer’s head, is a thicker, softer area known as the sally, and is the main point from which the ringer pulls, although the tail end is utilised as well. For example, the pull known as Hand-Stoke (or sally stroke) involves the ringer holding the tail-end loosely in the fingers, whilst holding and pulling from the sally and allowing the bell to rise to the balance. This puts the bell in an up position, then, on to Back – Stroke (or tail stroke) catching the sally, and taking the tail-end to around about the thighs, which is near the end of the rope.  Then, still with the tail-end loosely in the fingers, placing the hands again on the sally, pulling and moving the hands from the sally, and taking the tail-end to around the thighs and so on…

A quarter peal lasts for 45 minutes; a full peal is a whole 3 hours.  It is rare, now, for a full peal to be rung – two notable occasions this occurred at All Saints, were when the new bells were installed in August 2006, and before that, on the first Anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, whose family seat is in Northamptonshire. The 10 new bells were blessed by the Bishop of Peterborough, in whose diocese All Saints Church is located. They have all been named after the ten chapels in the original pre-1675 Crucible Church: Corpus Christi, The Blessed Virgin Mary, St Anne, St Osyth, St James, St John the Evangelist, St John the Baptist, St George, The Holy Rood and The Holy Trinity.  Each bell also has its own inscription. A ‘touch’ is what tends to be rung at weddings and church services. Funerals are a lot of work, as it is not a happy ring of changes, but a single bell tolling, which also used to take into account the age of the deceased, and which needed to be incorporated into the ringing. There are about 1,200 rope pulls, or change pulls in a quarter peal and roughly 5,040 ‘changes’ in a full peal.  This is some effort, even though it is skill and not brute force which is utilised, and the level of concentration needed can be intense. There are all sorts of tales about how some ringers would manage to eat at the same time as ringing – apparently a quick grab with the free hand is how it is done. If enough people show up at practice, there are frequent change-overs which both ensures everybody gets to practice and nobody gets overworked.

Bell-ringing began as a secular pastime, the means for which just so happened to be located in the church tower; beer was often drunk and given as payment for both church and secular ringing as well as ringing to call to church services. For example, a bell would toll to remind parishioners to put out their fires at night, and warn of other potential dangers. This has been incorporated into folklore; nursery rhymes such as ‘Ding Dong Dell’. Bell ringers used to reflect the mores of their time; they could be particularly licentious during the Reign of Charles l and II, which was cracked-down during the Interregnum. Fines were incurred. Spurs were expected to be left at the door, and one adage is ‘He who rings in spurs and hat, half-a-crown shall pay for that’.

As many have remarked, the sound of church bells is glorious. Those who ring can be visiting towns, hear bells ringing, and go to the tower for an impromptu practice, where they are warmly welcomed.  Bands make official visits to other parishes, far and wide, in order to practice on unfamiliar bells. Each bell is hand-cast, giving them all a special character of their own.

I can see how people become smitten, and it is quite commonplace to meet ringers who have been doing so for thirty, forty and fifty years.  For anybody considering bell-ringing, it is a good social activity, and, if you can raise your arms above your head, it is good and gentle exercise; bells and churches are both rich in history and part of the tapestry of English life.