The Bells of St Peter's Church - Change Ringing

Bell ringing has called Christian people to worship over at least the last Milennium, but the English tradition of Change Ringing is unique, in that the bells are rung 'full circle'. This enables the movement of the bells to be controlled precisely, and sequences (or changes) of each of the different notes varied over time. Methods comprise sets of such changes, and can be extended over periods of three hours or longer to form a peal (5040 changes).

This diagram (shown left) shows a lead of a method called Grandsire Doubles. Each line shows the bells, each ringing once in a 'change'. The tenor, the bell with the lowest note, numbered 6, follows after all of the other bells have rung.

The treble, the lightest bell, numbered 1, hunts up from the front (or lead) to the back, and then down again to the lead (ahead of the tenor, following the path shown in red). In this method, the second bell follows a similar path, following in the footsteps of the treble.

The other three bells follow the work of the method. The path of the third bell is shown by the blue line. It starts by striking twice in thirds place, then hunts down to the front, leads twice, and hunts up to the back, then again makes places. After that, before returning to the front, it dodges with the 4th bell.

The diagram shows that there are 10 changes before the treble returns to its starting position. If the diagram is extended until all of the bells return to their start positions, 30 changes are required. This is known as a 'plain course' of the method. 'Bobs' and 'singles', which change the work of the bells, can then be added to enable the maximum of 120 changes to be rung without repetition. This is known as an extent. As 120 = 5*4*3*2*1 = 5! (5 factorial) this corresponds to the total number of different changes that can be rung on five bells, and takes about 5 minutes to ring. With 7 bells, a true peal of 5040 changes can be rung, this takes over 3 hours. We do not ring many peals.

Change Ringing dates from the early 17th century, and Fabian Stedman's book Campanalogia, published in 1677, is the earliest book which describes the subject in detail. More familiar, perhaps, is Troyte's On Change Ringing (1869), which is quoted extensively in Dorothy L Sayers' popular 1934 detective story, The Nine Tailors. Before change ringing was invented, Call Changes, in which successive changes are called out individually, was widely practised; this form still dominates in Devon and Cornwall.

It can be appreciated that, in addition to its ecclesiastical function, change ringing has social, historical, musical, acoustical, and mathematical aspects, in addition to the satisfaction gained in exercising and improving an unusual skill. All of these, to varying extents for different people, contribute to its popularity.