Change Ringing

We said we won’t go into the arcane exercise of change ringing, but it is hard to resist saying something.

Change ringing is a peculiarly English art that evolved, especially in London, Birmingham and Norwich, from the 1500s onwards.  The essence of it is to ring bells (originally always church bells) in every possible order, without omission, repetition, or pausing.

On five bells (which is regarded as the smallest number for satisfactory change ringing) there are 120 possible orders, increasing to 720 on six bells, 5040 on seven bells and 40,320 on eight bells. Eight bells is the largest number on which all the sequences have been rung, taking about 19 hours to complete.

Ringers neither memorise the sequence nor count the number of changes.  Instead, the changes are produced by memorising rules for generating each sequence from the previous one, as the ringing progresses. Needless to say, an error in generating just one sequence means that each succeeding one will be incorrect, and this means that generating even quite a short sequence requires a lot of skill, learning, practice and concentration. The time to learn is when you are a teenager, but adults can learn and become very proficient if they put the effort in.

Handbells were first used by tower bell ringers as a means of practising without the need to climb a cold and dusty tower to heave heavy bells around. Change ringers normally ring handbells with one bell in each hand.  This requires more mental agility to generate the changes and is definitely a challenge to be taken up when the brain is still flexible.

Tune-ringing is easier at the basic level, but good tune ringing requires a musical ear and a good innate rhythmic feel. In fact, these attributes are also essential for competent change ringing too.

If you want to take up tower bell ringing, you are sure to find a welcome at your local tower. Most ringers become hooked for life once they have acquired the skills, but you will need time and dedication to get there, whatever your age.  One amazing thing about ringers is that most can and do continue well into pensionable age, as skill and learning is so much more important than strength and agility.

Tower bell ringing is very, very much more difficult than it looks: you are controlling the swing of a bell which may weigh several times your own weight only by means of a long, often springy, rope in a tower which may be perceptibly swaying under the swing of the bells. You have to control the swing of the bell to within a small fraction of a second, whilst at the same time allowing for the fact that the clapper strikes about two seconds after you pulled the rope! What a challenge! But what an achievement when you can do it!