"...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." --John Donne, Meditation XVII
Until recently, I assumed that church bells were rung electronically these days. However, I found out recently that at least some churches still use bell ringers. My coworker is a member of a volunteer group that rings bells across Sydney, and she invited me and some other coworkers to come to one of her practices. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera, so you won’t get any pictures.
We got there a little early so we could go up and see the bells. The bells ranged in sizes, from 162 kg to 550 kg. The largest one was a little smaller than the Liberty Bell. They were attached to a big wheel that had a rope wound around it which hung through the floor to the ringing room. In the ringing room, the ropes hung all the way down and lay in a bunch on the floor. Each rope had a furry wool part on it for grabbing. When the bells were ringing, these looked like giant caterpillars going up and down toward the ceiling.
What I didn’t know is that the bells are placed in the up position before the actual ringing starts. This allows the ringer to have greater control over the bell. They start ringing the bell, and the wheel turns until eventually the bell has enough momentum that it will rest in the upside down position. The ringers can’t see the bell, so they are doing it entirely by feel.
Once the ringing starts, there are no music stands or notes. Each ringer is assigned a number, according to the bell’s tone (1 is the highest bell). Then, the group leader calls out when the numbers switch order. The ringers don’t physically switch ropes, but they ring earlier or later in the sequence. As you might imagine, this would get difficult for the leader to call out numbers all the time. So the group also memorizes sets of numbers, called “methods”. I was quite amazed to see what they have to memorize.
The bell ringers were quite a varied group, from a 12 year old boy to an 80 year old lady. Ringing the bells in succession is quite difficult to time correctly, so the practices are essential. It was pretty neat to hear them work together.
I don’t know if there are many bell ringers in America, since it’s a part of English history. But the next time you hear church bells, you might try to find out if they are rung by people. It is quite an interesting thing to watch.