In most countries church bells are rung in order to call people to worship or for some other specific religion-related reasons, and at times church bells are rung to play songs. But England is different. There, bells are rung in certain specific and ever-changing patterns that are definitely not musical in nature, and it is done for the sheer pleasure of being able to master the complex patterns.
In The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey is stranded in a small village due to a car problem, and ends up getting involved not only in a murder mystery, but in a marathon attempt to break a record for “change ringing” at the local church. Luckily, Wimsey has had experience in this art and fits right in.
Sayers also writes about how a bell is used in a small village to notify the villagers for miles around that someone has died: First a church bell rings a certain number of times to announce that someone has died: then it rings a certain number of times to identify the deceased as either male or female; and finally it rings once for every year that the person has lived. Since people in small villages usually know who’s frail or sick, and the approximate age of the people who live there, the bell ringing is often enough to identify the deceased.
As for change ringing, I had never heard of it before reading Sayers’ novel and, therefore, didn’t fully understand what it was or how complex it can be. So, of course, I did some research on it and was fascinated by what I found. A well-done 47 minute YouTube video gave me a history of change ringing, and goes into some detail about how the changes are structured. The video also talks about the danger of getting tangled in a bell rope which, under certain circumstances, could leave the ringer dangling from the ceiling of the room where the ringing takes place – a very dangerous situation. One church that is featured in the video has its bell tower built on the ground, and is covered in glass panels so the public can watch the ringers as they pull down and then release the bell ropes. You will also notice that the ringers in most of the churches include men, women, and even children (who have to stand on boxes because they are so short). These people are serious about what they are doing.
I again encountered something about change ringing while reading The Murrow Boys by Lynne Olson and Stanley W. Cloud (more on that in a later post). The book is about how Edward R. Murrow assembled a team of correspondents during World War II who sent radio dispatches from Europe to the news-hungry people of the U.S. via shortwave radio. One of the “boys” was Eric Sevareid. In the quote below you see just how important change ringing was (and is) to the British:
To a bemused and still deeply troubled Eric Sevareid, the essence of what it meant to be English in that lovely and dangerous early summer of 1940 was captured by the bell ringers who kept practicing even after all the bells in all the steeples and belfries in all of bell-mad England had been rendered silent. The British government had decreed that no bells, church or otherwise, were to be rung for the duration of the war except in the event of a German invasion. All over England, clappers were removed to prevent false alarms. Shortly after Sevareid’s escape from France, he reported watching English church-bell ringers in a small town who kept on pulling the ropes as if the silent bells still made wonderful music: “If I could tell you in a sentence, which I can’t, why they do it, then I could explain in a sentence what distinguishes the British from their European neighbors. Imagine a rational Frenchman or National Socialist German ringing a noiseless bell.”
But who can explain the British, God bless them.