Monday, 7 May 2012

Taking church bells for granted

As a child, living in a village in Somerset, I got used to the sound of church bells - specifically the sound of change-ringing.

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(Citing from my own memory and experience, I haven't checked this:)

There are usually six or eight bells - the lowest is called the tenor.

Change ringing usually begins with a descending scale, ending with the tenor; then change ringing introduces variations by swapping the position of two bells at a time in a predetermined mathematical sequence, but still ending each six/ eight note sequence with the tenor.

Something like:

1 2 3 4 5 6
2 1 3 4 5 6
2 3 1 4 5 6
2 3 4 1 5 6
2 3 4 5 1 6
3 2 4 5 1 6  etc.

Church bell 'compositions' are therefore the various mathematical sequences which take the bells back to the original descending scale.

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To ring all possible combinations of the bells would obviously take a very long time (depending on the number of bells) - and usually there is just a shortish sequence of a few minutes, so I presume these are short simple compositions or a segment of a long sequence, perhaps?

Obviously I don't/ can't listen attentively to bell for long periods and can't recognise exactly what is going-on in terms of mathematical sequences; but something like the above is usually what is happening - the swapping of position of two bells in the sequence, ending with the low tenor.

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The difficulty of change ringing is to keep the sequence of bells evenly spaced, despite making these changes in the order of bells (and keeping track of the sequence, because the ringer has to know what he is going to do before he does it) - and constrained by the fact that a bell cannot be run early, but only held-back and delayed.

(I think I recall that, for mechanical reasons, church bells can normally only be held-back by one position in the sequence - i.e. its ring delayed by only one position in the sequence - not two; and this is the reason for the method of changes.)

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Anyway, since I moved up north from Somerset thirtysomething years ago, although there are church bells everywhere here, I have never at any time nor place heard good change ringing, never heard anything to match Backwell village church and the surrounding areas.

Certainly not at Durham Cathedral (I once lived next door) where the bell ringing was (forgive the expression) diabolical.

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Bad change ringing is uneven, and the whole thing usually collapses when two (or more) bells end-up overlapping or ringing at the same time - sometimes one sequence starts before the other is finished.

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What I did not realise at the time is that Somerset was special. It must have had - I presume (I haven't checked) - a great tradition of bell ringing, which is far from universal.

It is an example of the way in which, as a child, we take things for granted.

England is a land of near-universal church bells, and of change ringing; but good bell ringing is very far from universal, in fact it is very rare indeed.

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Any brief yet comprehensible technical corrections to the above would be warmly welcomed! But I was mainly concerned to emphasise my own level of comprehension as an untutored but keen listener to church bells.

Note added 5.6.19 - The mystique and method of change ringing is very well described in Dorothy L Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey detective novel The Nine Tailors, set in the East Anglian Fenlands which she knew well from her childhood, and which is a major centre of bell-ringing. It's a very enjoyable book - the best of the four or five Sayers whodunnits I have read, so far.