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Useful Notes / Change Ringing

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Ringing bells, British style.

Developed in the 17th century, change ringing involves ringing a set of tuned bells (which generally weigh from 250kg to over a tonne, although imperial measures are used to determine bell weight) in a series of patterns known as "changes". There is no attempt to ring a conventional melody although a melody of some form is produced nonetheless. Each bell is rung from a ringing chamber below it by an individual ringer pulling a rope which is attached to a wheel mounted to the bell; with the rope pulled twice during each full rotation - an animation can be found here.

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This form of bell ringing is the standard 'wedding bells' as heard in British media; rings of bells (usually of six or eight bells) are found in the vast majority of Anglican churches in England - there are some churches outside the United Kingdom that do this, including a few in North America (Toronto Cathedral for example). However, the varieties of ringing range from a few minutes of 'rounds' (ringing all the bells in order) to quarter peals (ringing a pre-set method of constant changes for about 45 minutes, about 1250 total 'dings'; i.e., one lot of bell sounds) to full 'peals' (about three hours or 5050 'dings'). For the latter cases, the aim is not to repeat the same order of ringing twice; as the possible number of combinations for eight bells is 40,320, this is easy enough to avoid. What is slightly tricky is making sure that you manage to pull it off.

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Change ringing doesn't require any great strength (pulling too hard can result in some quite serious consequences that frequently involve the bell rope disappearing into the ceiling, possibly with ringer holding on), but does require decent co-ordination, hearing and some decent memory.

It's worth pointing out that the practice was banned during World War II between 1940 and 1943, with the aim that the bells would only be rung in the event of an invasion (although ringing was allowed to celebrate the victory at El Alamein).

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Examples in fiction

  • The Dorothy L. Sayers novel The Nine Tailors features change ringing extensively.
  • Midsomer Murders features a bunch of bell-ringers, some of whom get murdered in the episode "Ring Out Your Dead".
  • The traditional nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons" refers to six ringing towers in central London, with debates onto the precise identity of two of them.
  • Church bells are regularly heard in The Archers.
  • In the 1969 Dad's Army episode "The Battle of Godfrey's Cottage" (missing until 2001), the church bells are mistakenly rung, making the Home Guard platoon think the Germans have invaded.
  • A Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch called "The Bishop" sees a priest played by Michael Palin ringing a bell... then getting hung by another bell rope.
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