One of the traditional sounds of Christmas is that of church bells.
I’m not sure why it is a traditional sound of Christmas, as church bells are rung through the year – most Sundays, as well as other celebratory events such as weddings and christenings.
But as you hear the peal of bells drifting over the meadows (and I happily agree that this is sometimes best way to hear them – get too close and you can’t hear yourself think) have you ever given any thought to the craft of the bell ringer or the history of bell ringing?
Brief History of Bell Ringing
The type of bell ringing that we know dates back to the 1600s – indeed many bells are at least as old as this. And it is peculiar to Britain (and, more specifically, England). There are over 5,000 ringing towers in England and less than 300 in the rest of the world.
Each bell is hung on a simple assembly that includes a wheel. The wheel acts as a pulley and as a rope is pulled from below, the bell can be swung further and further until it is upside-down. At this point it balances (honest – it really does). This takes a fair bit of practice to get right – many bells weigh the same as a small car or more. And, of course, you can’t see what the bell is doing – you just have to rely on what the feel and movement of the rope tells you.
This balancing is very important, as it gives the ringer a little bit of control over when the bell rings (the emphasis being on “little” – remember what I said about the weight of the bells? In a bell vs. ringer strength contest, the bell is probably going to win). The bells start off by ringing in sequence, down the scale. The little bit of control allows each ringer to ring a little bit more quickly or slowly and so swap the bells about – but only by one position at a time. Repeating this swapping about makes the unique music that we hear from the bell tower.
Oh – and one other thing. Bell ringers don’t read a “musical score” while they are ringing – it is all done from memory. Now, that is impressive.
If you are interested in finding out more about bell ringing, or would like to have a go and want to find a tower near you, Discover Bell Ringing could be a good place to start.