Living Heritage – The Ancient Art of Bell Ringing
Don’t look up
You will. Everybody does. As soon as you pull the rope and start a bell moving, you look up because it feels like the rope will never come down again. You soon realise that it will, and quickly, you realise the main reason is the potential for dust and debris to fall from the ceiling into your eagerly watching eyes.
Every evening, in churches across the country, a variety of individuals of all ages meet to practice the ancient art of bell ringing. And afterwards (very importantly) they go to the pub. And before you ask, no, it is nothing like the Mars Bar advert.
When I was twelve, on a whim, I asked if I could join the local ringing band and learn to ring, just because I thought it looked like a different way to spend an evening, and I was truly overwhelmed by the fact that I could move the equivalent weight of an old fashioned VW Beetle on the end of a rope. I learnt to ring very quickly and soon became a part of the team – it felt like being part of a secondary family.
Just to clarify, I did not practice the art of going to the pub when I was twelve.
Not just for Sunday
The traditional reason for ringing church bells is to call people to church for service – something that is still carried out across the country. Individuals like myself, who did not go to church every week still rolled out of bed to ring for half an hour every Sunday for many years without really questioning why.
As well as making a perpetual racket on a Sunday morning, there are a variety of other reasons for ringing tower bells.
The tradition that is still upheld most frequently is ringing for weddings. There are a variety of traditions across the country that differ from county to county, regarding how you ring for weddings, and the personal preference of the ringers does tend to influence the choices too. Here in the midlands, the tradition is to ‘fire’ the bells. This is where all the bells in the tower ring at exactly the same time, making one single sound. It really is a beautiful sound!
At my home tower, there are eight bells ranging from in weight from 254kg to 862kg, covering a variety of musical notes. When these all strike together, they create an eerie sound that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. This is a difficult art to master, as ensuring that all eight people involved can repeatedly coordinate their movements is a special kind of challenge. The combined weight of the bells in my home tower is nearly four tonnes (that’s about the same as your average size hippopotamus). When all this weight moves in one go, the 600 year old tower you are standing in literally moves – it really is a testament to medieval builders that churches are still standing when we swing great lumps of copper around in them.
Tolling a bell for funerals is another such tradition that has held against the passing of time. Usually the biggest bell (the tenor) is used for this tradition, and marks the start or end of funerals. In contrast to the happy sound that tower bells instil following a wedding, the tolling of a lone bell can only be described as one of the most heart-breaking sounds I will ever hear.
Finally, the last tradition, of which there are many more, is my favourite traditional reason for ringing bells; ringing in the New Year. As part of this tradition, ringers trek to church at around half past eleven on the 31st December, and begin to ring at around 11:50pm. Firstly, all the bells in the tower are rung in order for a few minutes. This is normally the point where all those who live around the church set off their fireworks as they think that the New Year has arrived already. As midnight approaches, the ringers stop ringing one by one, in the process called ringing the old year out. They do this, until one person is left tolling the tenor, just in time for the arrival of midnight (if they’ve got their timing right and the radio/phone they are relying on hasn’t died/fallen off the table), before all the bells in the tower start again to welcome the near years arrival. Despite the fact that nearly everyone outside of the ringing room cannot hear you because of the fireworks, there is nothing more spine chilling than literally hearing the old year leave – and nothing more lovely than welcoming the New Year in the noisiest way possible, with some really lovely people!
More than just noise
Bell ringing will also show you some of the most amazing things, which normally, most people don’t get to see either. I have crawled out onto a tower roof to see sights that many people will never get to see. You pretty much learn a new language in the form of the ‘music’ that tower bells work from as well as all the new terms and phrases that you need to understand in order to make these rather large lumps of copper sound tuneful. You also join a worldwide community who will welcome you to join them to ring wherever you might be.
Bell ringers are the friendliest people, and you really do find friends wherever you are in the world; when I went to university, the people I met in the Bell Ringing Society were some of the best friends I had at Uni (not just because they knew where the best pubs are).
But most importantly, you will truly understand that medieval builders hated bell ringers. Seriously.
The rooms where bell ringers ring the bells from tend to be hidden away from the rest of the church and accessed in the most obscure manner – we’re very much the churche’s dirty little secret! Usually, a steep spiral case/ladder/open walkway reveals a homely little room where bell ropes hang from the ceiling. Despite the entry issues, I am however thankful that I ring in the UK, where church builders did at least consider that we might like rooms to ring from. In mainland Europe, churches are notorious for having no ‘room’ to ring from – planks of wood running between the walls suffice just fine apparently!
By Hollie Davison, Project Manager