Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Ring of Bells

St Mary's Church, Thatcham, Berkshire

In village churches across England handsome towers, often square Norman ones, house collections of brass bells. And what is the collective noun for a group of bells? A “ring of bells” or a “peal of bells”. I can do no better than quote the very interesting Wikipedia entry on this equally interesting subject:

"Ring of bells" (or "peal of bells") is a term most often applied to a set of bells hung in the English style, typically for change ringing. Often hung in a church tower, such a set can include from three to sixteen bells (six- and eight-bell towers are particularly common), usually tuned to the notes of a diatonic scale (without intervening chromatic notes).
The distinctive feature of these English-style rings is that they are hung for full-circle ringing: each bell is suspended from a (usually wooden) headstock, which in turn is connected to the bellframe by bearings, allowing the bell to swing freely through just over 360 degrees; the headstock is fitted with a wooden wheel around which a rope is wrapped.

Inside St Mary's

In the village of Thatcham in Berkshire, about an hour on the train from London, you may visit a typical village church with a Norman tower. The original bits of the church date from the twelfth century, and it probably stands on the site of an earlier Saxon church building. The village itself has roots going back into far antiquity, and there are some claims about it being the oldest continuously settled place in England. But we are concerned with the bells, which are interesting enough themselves.

Church doorway

The church of St Mary’s in Thatcham completed its bell tower in 1500, and the bells were installed over the next 50 years. While Henry VIII was on the throne, they had 5 bells, and a sixth was added in 1624. Over the next three centuries the bells rang out -- so much so that the tenor bell (the largest) cracked, and had to be sent off up the canal to Whitechapel to be recast. Obviously well-loved by the village, the bells were augmented in 1929 to a ring of eight, and in 1970 two more were added to make a ring of ten. This is big - at that time there were only 200 rings of ten in the world. There are, however, 5,686 ring of bells in England.

Bell statistics?
The lightest is the ‘Treble’ weighing 280 lbs (177.8 kg)
The heaviest is the ‘Tenor’ weighing 1,479 lbs (670 kg)
The other eight weigh in total just under two tons, or 2540 kg.

In Thatcham on the evening of 16th December 2011 there was an air of excitement. A congregation of locals and visitors had filled the small church, a magnum of champagne was in evidence, and a supper spread awaited. What was the occasion?

Three woman and seven men were up in the tower. They rang a peal of 5040 changes of ‘Cambridge Surprise Royal’ in the time of two hours and 50 minutes. It sounds like a big enough effort to warrant the champagne, but it was extra-special: this was the thousandth peal to be rung on the bells - a record achieved by only four other tower in England since the first peal was rung in 1718. Congratulations!

There must be bells in there....
This news is brought to you by ‘Connect’, the magazine for Thatcham Parish Issue 35, February 2012). The magazine describes the ringers on this momentous occasion as “a very experienced band, including some of the most prolific peal ringers in the country”. The chosen few were selected from amongst those who had rung the most peals on the bells. Experience counts on these occasions. The conductor was William Butler, who has rung at Thatcham since 1961, and he composed this particular arrangement of ‘Cambridge Surprise Special’ in 1993.

Here's a rendition of the 'Cambridge Surprise Royal' - though only 10 minutes in length, not almost three hours - brought to us by St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney (in 2009). I must say, it looks like tricky and difficult work.

Thatcham Churchyard

The Parish magazine contains other snippets of news (more baptisms than funerals, you’ll be pleased to know), but it gives no clue as to when the next big peal might be heard. But have I got the terminology right? Wikipedia says:

Ringing church bells occurs in three basic ways: normal (peal) ringing, chiming, or tolling. Normal ringing refers to the ringing of a bell or bells at a rate of about one ring per second or more, often in pairs reflecting the traditional "ding-dong" sound of a bell which is rotated back and forth, ringing once in each direction. "Chiming" a bell refers to a single ring, used to mark the naming of a person when they are baptized, confirmed, or at other times. Tolling the bell is when the bell is rung once every four to eight seconds to announce a person's death.

Perhaps we need a big wedding at Thatcham. Any prospects?

'Ask not for whom the bell tolls....'

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