Bells come with a fair amount of emotional and fictional baggage, but to me they are a joyful part of life, especially at Christmas
Over the next couple of weeks, church choirs will be working overtime. But also doing their bit, by calling the flock to worship, will be the bell ringers – the campanologists. It’s a lovely word, derived from the Latin word for bell, campana. From my own point of view there is a neat horticultural resonance here, since campanula is the botanical name for the bellflower and I’ve been a bell ringer since I was 10 or 11 years old – about the same time that I began to take more than a passing interest in gardening.
Never blessed with a towering physique, in those early days of ringing I had to stand on a precarious mountain of wooden boxes to reach the rope. There was an additional problem: in my Yorkshire bell tower the fluffy bit halfway down the rope that acts as a hand grip – the “sally” – was matched by another fluffy bit at the end – the “tail-end”. Tiny schoolboy hands have a job encompassing this wad of red, white and blue wool in addition to that of the sally at what is known as the “hand stroke”.
As a result, I developed a rather individual grip which has never altered. Not to worry; it does the job.
People have varying attitudes to church bells. Once described by a long-suffering curate of my acquaintance as “a melodious din”, to readers of Dorothy L Sayers’s The Nine Tailors they may well have a sinister connotation. I won’t give the game away, should that detective novel be your choice of Christmas reading, but suffice it to say that the bells of Fenchurch St Paul have a bearing on a mysterious death. Add to this an image of Charles Laughton swinging on a rope as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and you’ll see that bells come with a fair amount of emotional and fictional baggage, but to me they are a joyful part of life, especially at Christmas.
Even village churches can boast a decent “ring of bells” – smaller churches tend to have six, the regular complement is eight, and our largest cathedrals and abbeys can boast as many as 16.
“Change ringing” – the art of ringing bells in a constantly changing order or pattern — was developed in the 17th century and is avidly pursued today by dedicated teams of ringers up and down the country. The peals have wonderful names like “Grandsire Triples”, “Yorkshire Surprise Major” and “Stedman Caters”.
The patterns must be memorised (a tall order for someone as innumerate as I am) and a peal of more than 5,000 changes will take around three hours – it is a test of stamina as well as memory. But listen carefully and you will marvel at the even spacing that can be accomplished by a skilful team. Anyone with good co-ordination and a mathematical turn of mind will find bellringing an absorbing hobby.
That said, even if counting and memorising sequences of numbers is not your predilection, you can ring the tenor bell, the heaviest of the lot, which usually brings up the rear. Beginners (or small ones at any rate) will usually start on the treble, the lightest, and have the privilege of beginning the ringing by saying “Look-to; treble going – she’s gone.” The very words still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
But don’t imagine that you will be swinging up and down on the rope à la Quasimodo – your feet will remain firmly on the ground. Neither will you need prodigious strength – bellringing is a question of balance, not brute force.
“Rounds” is the name given to the bells rung in ascending order of weight – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. “Queens” describes that alternating sequence of 1, 3, 5, 7, 2, 4, 6, 8, a lovely sound. Call changes can be rung by the most innumerate, since the tower captain will call out each sequence as it is to be rung. All you need do is follow the number of the bell called ahead of yours.
Bells are rung in celebration. There were many peals for the Diamond Jubilee, and at weddings they add a clamorous frisson to the ceremony of marriage. But they also mark the passing of souls, not simply by being tolled, but also with muffled peals, where leather pads are strapped to the bell clappers to reduce their sound to a more muted and sombre tone.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, in my old parish church of All Saints in Ilkley, we would go up into the bell chamber itself, above the ringing chamber where the ropes hang, and position ourselves under each bell where, having memorised the pattern, we would play carols – everything from Once in Royal David’s City to Silent Night which, when you are positioned directly under a bell weighing several hundredweight and your ears are quite literally ringing, has a certain sense of irony.
On Christmas Day I shall do my bit in the local village church as part of a team calling the villagers to their morning worship. I shall also be remembering the days of my childhood when my mother and father would ring alongside me. The larger peals may, as yet, be beyond my compass, but I did, a year or so ago, ring my first quarter peal, albeit on the tenor. In these days of high technology it is good to be part of a tradition that dates back 400 years.
So this Christmastide, when you hear a peal of bells, stop for a moment, listen to their unique kind of music and reflect on the fact that it has called people to church for more than four centuries. And if you fancy having a go yourself, you will find that teams of ringers all over the country will welcome you with open arms – especially on their midweek practice night.
If everyone needs an “ology”, then campanology is as good a one to boast as any.
If you still feel that it’s a touch too early to play carols on your iPod or music system, but you want to ease yourself into the season of goodwill, let me recommend the heavenly sound of two albums I purchased recently: the music of John Sheppard (c 1515-1558) Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria, sung by the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, conducted by Andrew Nethsingha, and Christmas with the Tallis Scholars - everything from Medieval carols to German Chorales, Chants from Salisbury and Tudor Polyphony. They should put you in an elevated frame of mind. The singing is ethereal.