That's all well and good, but what does that mean? Why does the hitting of large lumps of metal still attract so many people centuries after its invention?
Perhaps to understand the 'why', we have to understand the 'how'. To begin with: consider the bells themselves. Bells are measured in hundredweights and come in many, many sizes. Some can be as small as two hundredweight and stand little more than two feet if stood on the ground. Bells can go smaller than this, but not much, as it makes them more difficult to ring1. The larger bells are large enough for you to stand up inside with ease! By the time you get to that size, you have to measure in tons. These are big lumps of metal.
The collective noun for a group of bells is a 'peal'. This is also the name for a long period of extended ringing, usually lasting about three hours.
How Do You Ring These Things Anyway?
To explain how to ring a bell, it is easier to ask you to draw a diagram. Draw an outline of a bell, with the lip (the open end) pointing upwards. Draw a circle around it. The circle is called the 'wheel' and the bell is attached to this2. Now for the rope. Hold the paper vertically. The rope goes around the wheel, hanging according to gravity in an upside-down U shape. One end is attached to the wheel and the other hangs down for a long way - this is the end you pull. Each bell looks like this, modified only for size.
Inside the bell is a long lump of metal, called a clapper. It is attached to the top of the bell and hangs down inside it. It is on a hinge of sorts, which means it can swing freely in one plane of direction (the same plane as the paper). Now imagine that you are pulling the long end of the rope. Can you see how it makes the wheel spin (slowly), taking the bell with it? The bell moves in exactly the same way as the wheel. When you pull the rope, gravity causes the clapper to fall onto one side of the bell and you make the bell and wheel turn almost 360 degrees. This action is what causes the bell to ring. When you let go of the rope, the bell uses gravity to swing back where it came from. The clapper then falls to the other side of the bell.
There is a large difference between bells that are rung in England and bells that are rung anywhere else (with a few exceptions). Bells naturally want to hang with gravity, that is, with the mouth of the bell at the bottom. Outside of England, the bells are hung that way up and remain that way. They are 'chimed' instead of rung. This is why the style has far less control and has no set patterns of any description. The difference lies in one piece of wood, called the 'stay'.
When at the 'down' position, the bell hangs normally, with the mouth down. It's also known as the 'safe' position, as the bell will not cause any damage if the rope is accidentally pulled. This is the position bells are in when left after a ringing session.
But to ring the bells the English way the bell needs to be almost 180 degrees the other way up. This gives the ringer control about the exact time the clapper will hit the bell to make it sound. This control is not something that can be explained on paper, you learn to feel where the bell strikes as a part of learning to ring.
If left to its own devices, the bell would swing and eventually fall back to its original 'down' position. To keep it in the 'up' position we require a piece of wood, about the size and shape of a chair leg (think plain kitchen chair). At the top of the bell we attach another piece of wood, about the same shape. In the up position, the wood at the top of the bell rests against the stay, keeping it upright.
Stays are of variable quality. Some can be decades old (some even older) yet still hold firm. On the other end of the scale, sometimes a chair leg has been used, because they needed a stay quickly and then forgot to replace it with a proper piece of wood!
To ring a bell up (ie from the down position to the up) you start by chiming the bell, which requires very little movement. Gradually you pull a little harder and make the bell swing further and further round the circle, until you are ringing normally and the bell is swinging nearly 360 degrees with each pull. The bell can then rest on the stay until you are ready to ring.
This all sounds complicated, but it is longer to explain in words that seeing the real thing. Each 'ding', or stroke, takes between one and two seconds, which is a lot quicker than reading how it happens!
The skill in bellringing is being able to make all that happen at the right time. Each bell takes it in turns to ring. It takes about two seconds for all of them to ring regardless of how many bells are in the tower. Each set of bells will ring at a slightly different speed, due to the weight of the bells and the nature of the ringers, but the time will not exceed more than a second or so. If you have more bells, you just have to makes the gaps between them smaller. When you have to be this precise it is not difficult to put your bell in the wrong place in the sequence!
Tell Me More About These Sequences!
The simplest sequence is known as 'Rounds'. It involves ringing the bells in order from the highest in pitch to the lowest. The highest in pitch is the smallest bell, called the Treble. The lowest is the largest and is called the Tenor. You can have any number of bells ringing, from three to sixteen3. The usual number to have in a tower is six or eight. Sixteen is an exception - the only tower to have that many bells is in Birmingham, UK. There is usually an even number of bells in a tower, though of course there are always exceptions. Only the Treble and Tenor are named. Towers may have pet names for their bells, but that is not official.
If you are a beginner, Rounds is the first and most important stage to master. Everything else is just a variation on this. But what of the variations? This is the interesting bit.
Rounds written on paper looks like this for six bells:
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6 etc.
The highest bell, the Treble, is 1, the Tenor is 6, and the rest fit in between. But how do we vary this? The answer- swap a pair of bells over. For example:
1 2 3 4 5 6
2 1 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 5 6
1 2 3 4 6 5
To begin with, you can ring 'Call Changes', where the conductor calls out which pairs of bells move. But as you get better, you have to learn to do this at the same time as other people, without the conductor telling you. 'Plain Hunt' is the simplest method and is the second major hurdle to cross. Now you have to put your bell in a different place, whilst everyone else are doing that at the same time. The beginning of it looks like this:
1 2 3 4 5 6
2 1 4 3 6 5
2 4 1 6 3 5
4 2 6 1 5 3
4 6 2 5 1 3
6 4 5 2 3 1
It may look like a complicated mess of numbers, but the patterns are there! Look at the Treble (1). It starts off at the front. It then goes to the second place in the row, then the third, then the fourth and so on until it reaches the end. What happens next?
6 5 4 3 2 1 (rounds in reverse, by the way)
5 6 3 4 1 2
5 3 6 1 4 2
3 5 1 6 2 4
3 1 5 2 6 4
1 3 2 5 4 6
1 2 3 4 5 6 (we're back to where we started)
You then stay at the end for one row, then go back the way you came. Now look at the Tenor (6). What do you notice? It is simply a reverse of the Treble. If you look at all of the different bells, you can see that they all do exactly the same thing, they just start at a different place.
This is hard when you first do it. In fact, you probably won't be able to do it, the bells will all start to ring at the same time, nobody will know where they are and it will fall apart. But persevere. Gradually you will get used to it. And, once you have conquered that, there await a multitude of other methods waiting for you.
What Others Are There?
Too many to list here! To invent a new method, you take Plain Hunt and change it. You can introduce a 'dodge', which is basically swapping places with another bell twice instead of once, which will change the order. You might 'lie', which involves staying in the same place in the row, without dodging for a stroke. You might do a combination of all these things.
Some methods that you might hear about are:
Plain Bob - one of the simplest after Plain Hunt
Grandsire - another with only a few added bits
Cambridge - introduces a technique known as 'treble bob', as does Kent and others.
Plus there are regional methods, which your local tower might ring, such as Ipswich, Oxford or Carlisle, though they are not restricted to those places in any way!
You also get a few methods that were invented just because people could. They may not sound as harmonious as the better known and far older methods, but they can be intentionally difficult, so give those who are especially good a chance to stretch themselves. 'Scientific' was invented in this way. Some people like to ring 'spliced'- that is, ring several different methods, one after another without a break, one leading directly into the next.
Of help in findging out how people remember methods is the Worcestershire and Districts Change Ringing site who offer a section on Understanding Method Diagrams4.
So Why Do People Do This?
Many enjoy the mental challenge of learning a new method and putting it into practice. Some people enjoy ringing peals. They are often rung to commemorate things: the coronation of a new monarch, the welcoming of a new vicar to the parish, to celebrate the life of a departed ringer, to welcome a baby into the world, or sometimes simply for the fun of it. The other reason is the social life. Ringers are notoriously friendly people. Almost any tower in the country will welcome you to their practice and probably invite you to have a drink afterwards.
A few ringers become a little obsessed - some people ring hundreds of peals in a year, while others will ring for fifteen minutes at a tower just to say that they have rung there.
Where Can I Find Out More?
The Ringing World is ringing's weekly magazine and has current affairs and other stories. It may also be able to help you contact people.
Find out who your local tower captain is (the church may have details, or you could go up on a normal practice night) and tell them that you are interested in learning to ring. Most towers will be able to teach you, or direct you to somewhere that can.
1 You can get really small bells. Hand bells (ie bells you ring without a mechanism to help cope with the weight) range from about eight or nine inches high to as small as four.
2 The logo for the computer programme Abel can help you here.
3 There are names for the different numbers of bells that you ring in the sequence. If you have four ringing, it is known as minimus, five as doubles, six as minor, seven as triples, eight at major, nine as caters, ten as royal and twelve as maximus. Any other number is known purely by the number of bells.
4 If you are interested in learning the methods, the aforementioned computer program, Abel, can help. Away from the computer, there are many books to help you. Change Ringing Resources offer a publications list which links to publishers' websites. Jasper Snowdon's Diagrams is seen as a standard reference.