For Whom the Bells Toll


Moving to a house in Somerset, some years ago, which overlooked the parish church and its surrounding churchyard, I soon found out that the noise of traffic on the M40 in London had been exchanged for that of birdsong and bell-ringing. How pleasant, I thought, until I discovered that the birds were awake at 3.30am and the bells were not just confined to that Sunday morning call to church. Two services on a Sunday, ringing practice on a Tuesday evening, and a weekly influx, it seemed, of dedicated ringers aiming to visit every church in the country to achieve their “peals” (of which more later ), not to mention the occasions of weddings and funerals when the bells were again required.

I decided, full of desire to fit in with country life and its customs, to go along and see how it was done.

Now, I have to admit to something of an ulterior motive in wanting to climb to the top of the bell tower and admire the surrounding views, but this was soon quashed. Health and Safety did not approve, sadly. Instead, I met with the regular ringers and was introduced to the Tower Captain, as he is known. It is he who decides when we start and finish. Our captain was a hefty, ruddy-faced farmer who took some time directing my hands on the thick ropes on which to pull the bells. So I don’t just grab and yank, then?


Once positioned, off we went. And within minutes I thought a day at the gym might have been an easier ride. It was hard work and exhausting, and I began to think that I would soon have the biceps of an Olympic athlete. At one point, my feet left the floor and I thought I might get to see that view from the top after all. Everyone shouted to let go of the rope, which I did, crashing to the ground as the bell clashed and clanged uncontrollably until it had finished its swing. As did my own heart, pounding with a combination of excitement and fear. At once admonished by the Tower Captain for the possibilities of a nasty accident, who’d have thought this noble, bucolic art of bell-ringing might come with a health warning?

Despite this bad start I perservered and was soon talking to the others about peals, quarter-peals and half-peals. As I lay in bed on a Sunday morning I could soon tell how many ringers had turned up for the first call. Not hard, as I now knew there were six bells that could ring out – sometimes only a lonely two or three summoned people to church. By now, everytime I heard the bells I was much reminded of Charles Laughton in the part of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame“. His catchphrase “The bells! The bells!” ringing in my own thoughts as I researched this further.

The word campanology – and, indeed, it’s an ‘ology’, from Greek (‘logia’, to study), and the Latin ‘campana’ for bell – encompasses the technology of bells; their casting, tuning and sounding, as well as the history, methods and traditions of bell-ringing as an art in itself. A set of tuned bells are generally treated as one musical instrument. Hung in a church tower the bells are fitted to swing through a complete circle on each stroke. Between strokes the bell is poised upside-down with the mouth pointed upwards – pulling on its rope swings it down, and its own momentum swings it back up again. Easy to envision the dangers of going up with the rope all the way to the top!

Medieval bellringers

Delving deeper into the craft of the campanologist I find that mathematical permutations have enabled a system of change ringing – which replaces the usual order of ringing down the scale of, say, 123456. Ringers start with rounds and then proceed to rows, or changes – a permutation of rounds – such as 215436. Serious bell ringing must always start with a round. A few hundred rows are called a ‘touch’ whereas five thousand rows makes a ‘peal’. This can take about three hours to ring – thus explaining the lengthy sessions of visiting bell-ringers and the cacophony that met my move to the country.

Having returned to London, it suddenly occurs to me that lack of hearing any bells, despite the wealth of churches that exist here, and I wonder what my chances would be of taking up campanology in the city. Limited, I should think, and more’s the pity, but I’m so glad to have experienced it at all.