Bellringers in Winchester Cathedral

“...there is something in the tensely permutating atmosphere of the ringing chamber, the dozen or so reaching-out figures, the leaping ropes and the blindingly passionate clamour above, which suggests the climatic ascension of young blood. The ringers are utterly absorbed. Such a total absorption takes over their mortgaged, class-bound, year-measured lives that these conditions of existence are temporarily cancelled and the Self revels in noise, logic, arithmetic and a kind of intoxicating joy which accompanies the striking of one’s own particular bell in the deafening harmony.”

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe (1969)

EBells of Winchester Cathedralnglish-style bellringing is a curious activity unique to the United Kingdom. Change ringing, as it is often called, takes place in church and cathedral towers throughout the country, on anywhere from 5-14 bells, though 6 or 8 are common in churches, 10 or 12 in cathedrals. The bells are tuned to a major scale, and their mouths face up rather than hang down. Ropes are attached via a wheel so that when pulled, the bell swings all the way around and up, then down and up the other way, almost full circle. The clappers inside the bell strike at the end of each swing. This method gives ringers more control over the sound, slowing down and speeding up to vary the order of the bells.

bellringersBellringers stand in a circle facing one another, and at a signal begin pulling their ropes. They start by ringing a descending major scale, then begin switching the order of the bells, either directed by a conductor who calls changes, or following a method, gradually moving through the changes in a pre-ordained sequence. What rings out is not a tune, but a complicated mathematical pattern. It may sound chaotic to the uninitiated, but it creates a sophisticated, mysterious sound that has become a quintessential part of the English landscape.
Some methods, or peals, rung all the way through with no repetition of sequences, can take over 3 hours of non-stop ringing. Methods are given names according to their composer, style, and number of bells, resulting in some spectacular and poetic monikers such as Reverse Grandsire Cinques, Primrose Surprise Major, and Kent Treble Bob Royal.

Until the 20th century, bellringers were exclusively men. Women were gradually accepted, and now many towers include women in their ringing bands. With concern about the decline in the numbers of bellringers, a recruitment drive in 2018 connected to the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I brought in 3000 new ringers.

For more information on this complicated, wonderful, eccentric English pastime, look here: