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The Ancient Art of Change Ringing

Most people, including churchgoers, know little about the ancient English art of change ringing. Many ringers ring on Sundays but cannot attend service due to the time involved, so there is often very little contact between these two branches of the Church. Change ringing began in England during the late 17th century, when bells were first mounted on wheels. Since then, time ringing has been exported to other English-speaking peoples abroad - notably Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and parts of the USA such as Washington, New York and Boston.

Leicestershire has a long association with church bells and change ringing. The county possesses a number of churches with peals of bells which rank nationally for quality. A few which come to mind are those in Leicester Cathedral, Wigston Magna, Claybrooke Parva, Market Bosworth and Oakham. In addition, Loughborough is home to Taylor's Bellfoundry, a centuries-old company which is one of only two foundries in the UK. The company is a major exporter of church bells and Taylor's bells can be found in all of the countries mentioned above as well as in most towers within the county. Many local people are unaware that the Loughborough foundry has, within its walls, a tower with 12 bells which are hung for change ringing. The art of change ringing is also taught at Oadby St Peter's church, recently designated as a ‘ringing centre' for the region.

The Ancient Art of Change Ringing
This year marks the tercentenary of the death of the father of change ringing, Fabian Stedman. 2013 also marks the 50th anniversary of the ringing of the maximum number of changes on 8 bells. A peal of this length (40,320 changes) was achieved at the Bellfoundry by a single band ringing continuously for over 18 hours - a world record which is unequalled. Of most interest to ringers are towers with 8 (major), 10 (royal) or 12 bells (maximus), where a full set of bells represents an octave. All sets of changes must start and end in rounds (e.g. 12345678 in major), with each row in between being a different permutation in which all bells are rang exactly once in different orders e.g. 16372584 or 72481536 in major.

Bells are attached to a wheel and rope. When rung, the bell begins in the stable position a couple of degrees past vertical. As the rope is pulled on the upturned bell, the bell falls and turns through a circle before stopping mouth upwards again. Next time the rope is pulled, the bell rotates in the opposite direction. This circular motion gives rise to two strokes - handstroke, when hands grip the rope at eye level, and backstroke, when hands are stretched above the head holding the tail end of the rope. Because the bells are swung through slightly more than 360 degrees and because they are mounted on ball bearings, almost all friction is limited, and so very little physical effort is required, despite the large bell weights (between 0.1 to 2 tons). This allows the age range of ringers to be varied between 7 to about 90, with beginners being of any age.

Simple patterns allow change ringers to vary permutations for long periods of time without having to memorize every movement. Using these patterns, it is possible to ring a full peal, in which all of these permutations are completed without repetition. The number of changes required for this depends on the number of bells, as for a major set, the number will be a factorial of 8!, (40,320 changes) while for 12 bells, the total is 12!, or 479,001,600. Much shorter peals are usually rung, with the average peal lasting around three hours.

Change ringing is a team sport and so it can be necessary to pay attention to the ringing of others, as mistakes made by one ringer must be corrected immediately. This often happens during practice sessions, and so the band will revert to ringing rounds. Longer length peals are usually taken more seriously and sometimes there may be a heated exchange of words and possibly recriminations when the ringing breaks down - especially if the peal is nearing its end. Correcting other ringers while keeping ones own bell in the right place requires considerable skill, so usually only very experienced ringers will get involved in ‘sorting out’. These ringers will have clocked up 1,000 to 3,000 peals - the present record is 6,000 - and some ringers will also be adept at ringing two bells. At 3 hours per peal this is a time consuming hobby for some.

Peals consist of at least 5000 changes, with average speeds of 30 changes a minute. For a peal of triples, e.g. Stedman triples, 5,040 changes must be rung (7!). The above examples are of even bell ringing but my preference is for odd bell methods. This simply means the tenor strikes last in each row, which I feel enhances the musical effect. Many of the commonly used standard methods (e.g. Grandsire or Plain Bob) are centuries old.

The purpose of this article is to introduce readers to the world of change ringing. Few hobbies involve such a diverse range of people, although potential young ringers should realise that making the grade cannot happen in five minutes. Change ringing is a mentally challenging hobby, but nobody should be put off by the physical requirement to control such a large mass of metal. If you wish to make a start in ringing, you must undertake to ring for Sunday services. You need not be religious, as I have known several athiests who have converted to Christianity via the belfry. You will be beginning an unusual performing art, but one which is quintessentially English, and one that, once mastered, is immensely satisfying.

Article by: Mr Robert M Kilby

Image: Members of the band of change ringers at the parish church of St Andrew, Aylestone. Terry Roper (tower captain), Winifred Warwick, Catherine Deering, Clem Brine, Barbara Cheyne, Liz Wright, Chris Hurst and Bill Steward.