In 1668, something remarkable happened. A gentleman named Fabian Stedman published a work named Tintinnalogia which forever changed the way we hear English church bells-- variously loved, taken for granted, or despised, but a characteristic sound of England. I learnt to ring church bells as a teenager, which instilled in me a great affection for the English parish church. To this day I love to turn an iron handle and push open aged oak doors into the fustiness of damp and incense. In my youth especially, nothing was more evocative than winding my way up narrow, spiralling worn-stone stairs crafted by mediaeval masons, to the ringing chamber where names on peal-boards summoned up ghosts from the past.
Bell-ringing has a long history. Some of our earliest parish churches included towers containing private chapels for the Anglo-Saxon rulers, such as Deerhurst in Gloucestershire and Brixworth in Northamptonshire. These were the great minsters, important enough to be built of stone whereas ‘lesser’ churches were wooden. Then the Normans brought with them their plagiarised Romanesque, followed by the early Gothic style. Both of these incorporated towers, which became more prominent with the later mediaeval rebuilds. It is thought that the early church tower played a part in village defence. During the mediaeval period bells began to fill their current function, rung as a summoning to prayer, a harbinger of news, a celebration, or to commemorate the passing of the dead.
Bells have been cast in England since the mediaeval period, though we know that since at least the 1600s they have been tuned to a diatonic scale. The lightest and highest in tone is the treble, and the scale descends to the lowest tone and heaviest bell, the tenor. The bells are supported by either a (traditional) oak, or steel frame, and each bell is rung by the full arc of its wheel. The bell is ‘rung up,’ with its mouth up-turned and readied for ringing. These heavy bells are kept just off-balance with a slider/stay system. From each wheel, a bell rope descends into the ringing chamber. The notion that ringers can be whipped up into the belfry is nonsense, although learning to ‘handle a bell’ can be a tricky process. The physical side of bell-ringing is akin to riding a bicycle, requiring understanding of the bell's momentum.
Fabian Stedman and his Tintinnalogia provided us with the art of bell-ringing known as methods, rung on a number of bells ranging from between five to as many as twelve bells or more. These methods are not as musical as we might imagine; they are in fact mathematical patterns/permutations in which each numbered bell changes position one place at a time, hence the phrase 'ringing the changes.' However, some of these methods are tuneful by virtue of the pattern that they follow.
This style of ringing changes had existed to a lesser degree before Stedman, as evidenced by the bell-ringing societies. The most antiquated and best-known is The Ancient Society of College Youths, of which Stedman was master in 1682 and which still exists today. Cathedrals have select and experienced ringers, while most villages with (ringable) church bells have a regular practice night and Sunday-service ringing. Universities also have societies. As a mature student, I was fortunate to ring with the Oxford University Society of Change Ringers (OUSCR). This is the University’s oldest continually running society (since 1872). It was founded by J. E. Troyte, also a writer on the subject, and regular ringing only ceased during the war-time black-outs.
Although bell-ringing takes place in church towers, it can be a secular activity attracting a mix of personalities and ages. In villages and cities, many towers with ringable bells are open to any new bell-ringer. Those interested may consult Ronald H. Dove's 1950 guidebook, Church Bells of Britain. This lists all our bells, ringable or not, painstakingly detailing all manner of information such as their number and weight, practice nights, key/notation, and so forth. This was to become Dove’s life-work, and the book is known to ringers simply as Dove. It is always in print, like the red-cloth book Methods, containing many methods named after places such as Cambridge, Bristol and Yorkshire. Ringers also have the journal The Ringing World, published every week for the last hundred years.
Church bell-ringing is an art-form worthy of retention and celebration. It saddens me when I chance to ring at a tower or visit my home village and there are barely enough ringers present to make it worthwhile. Without church bells on a sweet summer Sunday morning, both Oxford's dreaming spires and England's pastoral charm would lose something. Consider that the ringing of bells from ancient towers is a sound that goes back to the time of Charles II. Webster had recently published The Duchess of Malfi, Wren was engaged in plans to rebuild St Paul's and redesign London as a series of Italian piazzas, Defoe was writing the first real English novel, and the scientist Robert Hooke was mapping our geology. Bell-ringing would continue to flourish into the age of Enlightenment and beyond.
The demand for church bells has given us some notable companies, such asJohn Pritchard (rope-maker), Smith of Derby (clock-maker) and the two remaining bell-founders in England: the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, established in 1570, and John Taylor & Co, Loughborough, dating to the fourteenth century. Both have cast many famous bells, and are sometimes open to the public. In particular, a trip to the East End of London is incomplete without a visit to the Whitechapel foundry: its Dickensian shop-front on the busy Whitechapel Road is a testament to its survival.
The continuing appeal of church bells is shown by the long-running BBC Radio 4 programme Bells on Sunday, featuring recorded ringing from around the country. And how do we remember Fabian Stedman? A ringing method takes his name, and in his home village of Yarkhill (Herefordshire), funds are being raised to save the existing bells and cast a new ring. Its tenor bell will be named Fabian Stedman in his honour.--Monty Trumpington