Ringing the changes

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Waking on a Sunday morning in Oxford, vaguely hazy about a bop the night before, the gentle tinkle of bells filters across Radcliffe Square to your college room.“Oh no,” you’ve probably thought at least once, “who on earth could be making such a racket this early?” So the bedcovers are pulled a little higher and it’s back to sleep.But for a small and dedicated band of slightly mad individuals, braving the cold morning air to yank at ropes connected to colossal metal weights is the only hangover cure they’ll ever need. And surprisingly, tens of thousands of ordinary people are prepared to get up and ring for weddings and church services, as well as evening practices, every week for an entire lifetime.Bell ringing is one of those peculiar cultural interests unique to England, like cricket and warm beer, and has remained popular since the 17th century. Formerly the preserve of male, vaguely genteel types with too much time on their hands, now anyone can ring, and it’s the sort of equalising interaction that brings wealthy financiers onto a level playing field with kids from deprived inner-city backgrounds.Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns known as ‘changes’. It’s not quite music, and it’s not quite maths, but it’s a good way of imagining how numbers might sound if you could hear them. There are around 6000 rings of bells used for change ringing across the world, and the vast majority can be found in England and other English-speaking countries. Oxford alone contains a fair few of them: the most prominent are the six particularly heavy bells hanging in the University Church, St Mary the Virgin, next to the Radcliffe Camera. Other towers with bells are St Cross, opposite the Law Library and on the way to St Catherine’s, St Mary Magdalen opposite Sainsbury’s, and in New, Merton and Magdalen colleges. Bells and churches have, like so much of the historical architecture in Oxford, blended seamlessly into the changing landscape around them.Groups of swinging bells in English church towers date from the 10th century, and certainly by the 15th orderly ringing with changing note patterns was taking place. But change ringing only really took off after Charles II’s restoration in 1660, when puritan rules forbidding bell ringing were swept away. It may seem hard to imagine now but under Oliver Cromwell, ringing bells was the equivalent of staging an all-night rave and trying to get one over on the authorities. There are records of bell ringers being pilloried or, even worse, investigated as Catholic plotters and agents.The first recorded society of ringers was the Ancient Society of College Youths, founded in 1637 and still in existence almost four hundred years on. But the man most influential in developing the science and art of change ringing was a determined amateur mathematician named Fabian Stedman. His first book published in 1668, Tintinnalogia, set down all the available information on systematic ringing, and the principles in his 1677 follow-up Campanologia remain essentially unchanged today.Ordered ringing works by hanging bells in large wooden or steel frames inside a belfry, and pulling them from a rope attached to a wheel that goes down into a ringing room. When pulled, the bell rotates almost full circle, with the clapper inside swinging round and striking the bell: pulling the rope back again through two successive revolutions constitutes a whole pull. A kind old man once came to my tower when we were going up for practice one night. He asked me, slightly bizarrely, if we could play Elvis for him. Or maybe The Hollies, as he hadn’t heard them in a while. I made some sort of blustery apology about how bells didn’t make that kind of melody, but were just permutations of bells governed by a pre-determined algorithm that happened to sound quite nice when put together. The bemused expression on his face told me I was never going to be a maths teacher.Perhaps more simply, imagine there are six bells in a tower. The lightest bell is called the treble, or 1, and the heaviest is called the tenor, or 6, and in between are bells 2, 3, 4 and 5. Ringing the bells in order 123456 is called, rather simply, rounds, and makes a pleasant sound that any musician will tell you is a descending scale. Swap all the bells around one place to make 214365 and you have another row of changes. With six bells, there are exactly 720 different combinations of bells that you can make, or in the words of a mathematician, six factorial. On seven, there are 5040 possible combinations and on eight, 40,320. Ringing every one of those 5040 changes is called a peal, and takes around three hours to do, but few ringers, no matter how mad enough, are likely to try and ring for the 24 hours it would take to perform 40,320 changes in one go. In an alternative reality where human fatigue was not a problem, ringers could spend hours and hours ringing thousands of unique changes with no outside direction or coordination. Rather than memorising endless reams of numbers, ringers use a neat trick by following a simple pattern of where their bell moves around the other bells, known as a ‘blue line’ due to the colour of the patterns shown in ringers’ books. Method ringing involves memorising this pattern and other potential permutations that could be affected by a call from the conductor, the most common of which are called bobs and singles. No one knows why they’re called that, but having someone loudly shout ‘bob!’ in order to make things happen just adds to the general aura of eccentricity. Like other ringing jargon, methods are named to show what they involve. ‘Minor’, for example, means a method on six bells, while ‘major’ is a method on eight bells, all the way up to ‘maximus’ for twelve bells. Of course, this gives rise to silly names for methods like Coal Minor or Sergeant Bob Major (ho ho!) but most methods are named after places. There are, for instance, Oxford Treble Bob Major and Cambridge Surprise Major: combine them both and you have a method informally known as ‘Boat Race’.There are certain standard methods which every ringer knows, or has heard of, each of which has a name that only a bored English eccentric could come up with: Plain Bob, Little Bob, Grandsire and Stedman to name but a few. And of course, asking for some Reverse Canterbury Pleasure could get you more than you bargained for.
There are tens of thousands of ringers in England and Wales alone, although their average age must be well over 40. The bell ringing community even has its own weekly newspaper called The Ringing World (probably named in a spasm of excitement) which usually involves pictures of old ladies holding new ropes and endless pages of recent peals. Nevertheless, the number of ringers is rapidly declining as the popularity for something that rewards thought and patience wanes in a fast-moving 21st century. There is, however, some room for optimism: churches with towers, particularly in urban areas, are increasingly attracting young people from a mix of social backgrounds and religious beliefs (including those without any) who want something to keep them busy and off the streets. At one tower in Colliers Wood in South London, almost three-quarters of the band are still in their teens, and they are proud of their collective ethnic diversity. Although the stereotype that most ringers are white, middle-class and old remains largely true, especially in southern England, a gradual shift is taking place.At a tower out in the sticks, however, it can take months to learn how to handle a bell correctly, and years before you could be classed as a ‘good’ ringer. Ringers speak of having a ‘ringing career’, as you go from country bumpkin struggling to hold a rope to conductor of St Paul’s Cathedral. It really does last that long, but therein lies one of the attractions: there’s a real sense of satisfaction to be had from perfecting and honing a skill over the course of an entire lifetime. The sound of bells is something that, in England, forms a continuous part of our existence. Whether you happen to be religious or not, church bells can be found in cities, towns and villages across the country. They are there when we marry, when we die, and when we go about our daily lives by unfailingly chiming the time for us. They can be jubilant and cheerful at times of national celebration, or sombre and reflective at times of national mourning.The only extended period of time when English bells were silenced was during the Second World War, when they were supposed to only ring in the event of enemy invasion. But perhaps this goes to show how, even if bells aren’t ringing from shire to shire, they’re still always there to reassure us against the worst.

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