We have bells in our churches to call people to worship, help make the Church present in the community and of course as an act of worship. The origin of bells is biblical; they are the cymbals in the temple worship referred to in Psalm 150.
Our bells are hung for full circle change ringing – a uniquely English practice dating back to the 16th century, which brings out the best tonal qualities of the bell and enables an experienced ringer to have accurate control over the striking.
The bell is raised to the upside down position. The bell ringer pulls on the woollen sally on the bell rope and the bell will turn full circle and strike. The ringer will then pull down on the tail end so that the bell will turn full circle the other way and strike on the other side. The ringer will then catch the sally so the cycle of work begins again. Learning to control the bell safely and master good striking requires instruction from experienced ringers and plenty of practice – just like learning to ride a bike.
Full circle ringing does not require much physical effort from the bell ringer; it is gravity doing most of the work. The bell will normally turn at a constant predetermined speed. This is what happens when the bells are ringing down a descending scale: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 (known as rounds). The treble (highest note and lightest) will strike first and the tenor (deepest note and heaviest) will strike last.
Skilled ringers are able to vary their speed of ringing slightly by pulling quickly or holding up so it is possible to change the order that the bells strike. One such system is call changes when the conductor will call one bell to follow another so that two bells will change their place within the order. For example if rounds (12345678) is being rung and “3 to 1” is called then the order will become 13245678. Particular orderings of bells are known as changes. Some of the most musical changes have names; for example Queens (13572468), Kings (75312468) and Tittums (15263748).
Another system involves the ringers constantly swapping over pairs of bells, according to a predetermined rule known as a method in such a way that no change is repeated. The ringers have to learn the which places their bells must ring in each change so they know when to vary their speed. Some methods are simple, such as Plain Bob, whereas others like Cambridge Surprise are more advanced.
The more bells that are ringing, the greater the number of possible changes there are. There are only 6 changes on 3 bells, 24 on 4, 120 on 5, 720 on 6 and 5040 on 7. It takes 2½ to 3 hours to ring all possible changes on 7 bells – such a performance is known as a peal; a feat normally attempted only by very experienced and dedicated ringers!