Ringing the Changes

As I alluded to last week, the afternoon we were in Carlisle happened to be one of the afternoons the cathedral tower was open to visitors. We assumed this would entail a walk up a tight staircase and out onto the square of the tower giving us a view of the city. The weather was so good, we hoped to be able to see quite far into the distance.

As we sat down to await the start of our group’s tour, we realised we were not going to the top of the tower to admire great views, we would be visiting the belfry to hear melodic methods.

Our expectation of tight staircases was met, although I took no pictures while winding my way up them. We did get to walk the length of the cathedral along the clerestory (from where I was able to photograph the organ scholar) and then went up another set of stairs to enter this room.

Carlisle cathedral has 13 bells, each of which has a rope with a fluffy sally, which the bellringers use to put their bell into action. One of the bellringers gave us a detailed explanation of the mechanisms, ringing one of the bells up in the process. This is the way in which bells are turned up, so that the open end is at the top, from where the movement of the bell and the clapper can be controlled. Pulling on the sally of a bell moves it from the up position to ring, momentum moves it back up again and by controlling the sally, the bellringer can control when the bell rings next. That was my understanding of the description, I am more than happy for a bell ringer to correct me in the comments! [I have updated this paragraph to reflect comments I have received from a bell ringer]

The bell in this picture is in the up position as well as having a tied clapper. On the big bells in the tower, the clappers are tied with blocks of wood rather than an elastic band.

The reason clappers are tied is so that bellringing can be practised without any sounds being made. At Carlisle Cathedral a system of light beams and a computer has been installed, which captures the movement of the tied bells with the light beams and then plays the sound through the computer and a set of speakers in the room in which the bell ringers stand. They can hear how the bells would sound if they weren’t tied.

We then went up another set of spiral stairs to the room above to see where the ropes emerged and lie on the wheels of the bells. Most were in the down position, only two were up, the one that had just been rung up for us, and the one next to it, which has its clapper tied with blocks of wood.

The single order in which the bells are rung is called a change. The bells are all numbered, and each change rings the bells in a different order. The order in which bells are rung can be swapped between bells on each round. Sequencing multiple different changes after each other, it is called a method. The sounds they make are not really tunes, quite a few of the variables that make up a tune, like the length of a note, cannot be produced on bells. A method details the sequence of changes, ie the order in which each bell is rung and there are different methods for a different number of bells. A small church with three bells cannot reproduce the same method as Carlisle Cathedral. We were briefly shown how methods are notated, although I cannot fully explain what this notation means. I suspect this is a method for 6 bells, although why the Carlisle Surprise only uses 6 bells when there are 13 bells there I don’t know! [again, paragraph updated after feedback was received from someone in the know]

Changes in bell ringing can also be called, rather than having been designed, written down and memorised by the bell ringers on a line-by-line (change-by-change?)basis. Many churches throughout England have bells which are rung at least once a week for church services on a Sunday. The regularity with which bell ringing is heard through England and the number of possible variations of sequences has given rise to the expression “ringing the changes” being used to describe doing something a different way to make it more interesting.


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