The chime of Big Ben in Westminster is an iconic feature of British culture that is replicated on a smaller scale in church towers of villages and towns up and down the country. Church bells have been rung for many hundreds of years for remembrance, weddings, and for simply telling the time. Behind the scenes, there are teams of bellringers who travel the country to maintain these age-old traditions.
The world of bell ringing is complex, interesting and enjoyable. The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers was established in 1891 and now represents 65 societies across the country and the world.
In Oundle, we hear the bells of St Peter’s Church struck automatically by a mechanism every fifteen minutes. However, bells can also be rung manually using ropes. English bell ringing is called full-circle ringing, as the bell’s mechanism on a wheel allows it to rotate 360 degrees. First the bells are rung ‘up’. When the bell rope is pulled, this turns a wheel, causing the bell to fall and make a sound. The technique of using a wheel was first used in the 16th century. Before this, ringers had no control over the bells and so they could not be rung in a pattern as we hear them today. Bells have different pitches – St Peter’s eight bells are tuned to a D major scale.
Sue Marsden is an experienced bell ringer whose main tower is Peterborough Cathedral and St Johns Church in Peterborough. She also rings at Oundle as well as in other churches. Her great grandfather was a bell ringer in Cornwall, and she started when she was 17 years old. Bell ringers perform a community service, but also enjoy a lively social network. Most of her weekends and many weekday evenings are spent meeting groups of ringers in church towers.
Ringers are not expected to be religious, and do not require musical talent. As a skill, bell ringing requires more of a degree of co-ordination and rhythm. Mrs Marsden said how to physically control a bell can be learned in a couple of months. But learning to ring in a group can be challenging. Bell ringing is done with five or six other people and there is a delay between pulling the bell and the bell sounding with split-second timing. “You’ve got to judge the strength and length of your pull to make it sound in exactly the right place,” she said.
Bell ringing pieces vary in difficulty, so less experienced bell ringers can practice and improve. “It can get progressively harder, depending on what you want out of it.”
While bells can be heard most Sundays for services, they are also rung for private occasions such as weddings and funerals, as well as events of national importance such as the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession in February and the Platinum Jubilee in June.
Different occasions require different types of ringing. There are rings known as “quarter peels” where bells are rung constantly for forty-five minutes, and less frequently there are “peels” which take three hours to be rung.
Bells that are rung on state occasions follow an official protocol. Mrs Marsden rang a single muffled tenor bell at Peterborough Cathedral during the mourning period for Prince Philip in April 2021 when covid restrictions meant that groups were not allowed to ring in towers. The Royal Household and Lambeth Palace have established guidance for bell ringing when the Queen dies. Bells will be muffled and rung for one hour after the announcement, and remain muffled until Buckingham Palace proclaims the new Monarch, when they will ring open in celebration of the accession. The bells will then be muffled until the day of the state funeral.
Part of the appeal of bell ringing is the opportunity to visit different churches and meet new ringers. Mrs Marsden is equally impressed by the grandeur of a cathedral as the simplicity of a village church.
“It is always good to go to the big cathedrals like York Minster and Exeter Cathedral, but it’s just as good going to a little village church like down the road at Cotterstock, which has a lovely church and a lovely setting,” she said. “Bells are different in the way that they sound. It’s that variety that’s my absolute favourite.”
Gordon Brown, the vice tower captain at St Mary’s Church, Weldon, agrees that the social aspect of bellringing is important. “Our bell ringing group used to organise tours where we would visit half a dozen churches in a day, have a picnic lunch then a bar meal in the evening.” He said the most memorable churches are some of the bigger churches with eight or more bells, such as Fotheringhay.
He said that experienced bell ringers are welcome at any church. “If I hear bells ringing, I will often blag my way into the tower and assist. Just one extra ringer can make a vast difference in a band.”
The band at Weldon has a campaign to recruit and train new bell ringers every year. Mr Brown offers bell ringing lessons on Thursday evenings at 6.30pm in Weldon, and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.