I’ve said that change ringing is very difficult, so what are the rewards that you get in return for all that effort?
The effort is both physical and mental. As a new ringer, you will get sore hands – maybe even troublesome blisters – until your hands harden like a farmer’s. If you ring a heavy bell, you will likely get sore abdominal muscles too. And certainly you will get hot and tired, even though many ringing chambers are very cold and damp in the winter – and hot and dusty in the summer. Ringers roll their sleeves up or wear short-sleeved tops even in winter. Generally, you don’t get out of breath, though – this is an endurance event, not a sprint. In the summer, you will end up soaked in sweat on anything other than the lightest of bells, and it is not surprising that after a quarter peal or a full peal, you will need to refresh yourself in the nearest hostelry: quite often this will be called the Six Bells or the Eight Bells, no doubt in acknowledgement of the amount of beer the ringers would have consumed in the old days. So ringing is a good workout, and we know how exercise releases the endorphins that create a feeling of pleasure.
The second part of the pleasure is harder to appreciate – and that is the music of the bells. Bell music is quite different from ordinary music where complex rhythms and harmonies engage primitive responses within the brain. Bells music relies firstly on an absolutely precise beat – but of course primitive music often relies on this as well – such as the drumming practised in ancient tribal dancing.
But more than that, there is the steady progression of the heavy bells passing through the light bells. As you listen, you hear evocative melodies approaching, suddenly sounding out and then vanishing from existence just as quickly. Composers of bell music (and they are just as famous among ringers as any pop band or classical composer) work hard to generate and sustain these ‘melodies’ whilst at the same time stricly adhering to the rule that each musical line can sound once and only once in each composition. Should such a ‘change’ sound more than once, the composition is false and the ringing is not considered to be a valid performance, no matter how nice it sounded. Bell music is not easy to appreciate, but ringers standing aloft in a tower have plenty of time to listen and learn.
The third part of the pleasure is perhaps even harder than the music to appreciate. It is the challenge of following the ‘method’. The method is the system by which the changes are generated. No method is trivial to a beginner, even if the theory is simple. Putting it very simply, in rounds, each bell sounds in sequence from the lightest to the heaviest, over and over again. This gets rather tedious after a while, so in simple methods, pairs of bells swap over repeatedly, but this has to be done in such a way that no row is ever repeated. There are thousands of methods, ranging from very simple to exceedingly complex. The problem for the ringer is remembering which ‘step’ is next. You have to know this for each step without any hesitation that would disrupt the perfect rhythm: making each change involves minutely precise changes in the speed at which the ton of metal above you is spinning round. Indeed, when ringing a heavy bell, you need to know what is coming several blows ahead, because you will need to plan how you are going to pull the rope. Yes, although ringing looks easy – just pulling on a rope – it turns out that a skilled ringer uses many subtle techniques to achieve the desired result without becoming exhausted. This requires a skill to feel what the bell is doing, because its spinning is affected by the swaying of the tower and the movement of adjacent bells. As an example of the effect of skill, I have seen a relative novice struggle to ring a bell ‘up’ for 15 minutes without success, having to give up through exhaustion, whilst a skilled ringer can do the same thing in 30 seconds with no apparent effort.
But I have digressed from the problem – which is how can you be absolutely sure of which step is next? The problem is a bit like navigating a car round city streets. Imagine a taxi driver being asked to drive you to an office block from the station before the days of sat-nav. He would have to recall his mental map of the city and decide which turnings to take. But should the taxi driver take a wrong turning, he can find another route (and charge you for the privilege!) in ringing this causes confusion to the other ringers, who are expecting you to be making space for them at every blow. If you are lucky, the other ringers may realise where you should have gone, and will put you right. But suppose they’re not sure either? You bump into each other and chaos rapidly ensues. Of course, good ringers learn to recognise all sorts of signposts that help them to keep on the right road. But it requries absolute concentration, during which time you cannot be worrying about other problems. It is a bit like entering an alternative ‘dream’ state, slightly hypnotic due to the rhythm of the bells.
A further pleasure is the sense of being part of a team. It’s not for nothing that ringers prefer to call themselves a ‘band’, because they are united in the effort of achieving a common goal. They have to co-operate and to help each other, and this cements very strong bonds between them. Ringers do feel themselves to be special because of this bond. Of course there are ‘prima donnas’ as in every field of endeavour, but every successful band realises that their goal can only be achieved if everyone works together.
And finally, there is the sense of achievement from setting yourself a difficult goal and achieving it. There is always a new goal to aspire to: it is not like running the same race repeatedly – each new goal can be more challenging than the last, and a new sense of achievement is won each time.
I believe that ringing is truly unique and I fervently hope that this will not be lost in today’s ‘brave new’ world.