Hark how the bellsWatch Video
LITTLE ROCK The jangle of the bells from the tower at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Little Rock fills the air every Sunday morning, calling the faithful to worship. The majestic ringing heard throughout the neighborhood and beyond isn’t recorded music as in many churches today. These huge bronze bells, each weighing hundreds of pounds, are rung by members of the Trinity Cathedral Ringing Society.
While uncommon in the United States, change ringing is popular in England and can be heard in churches throughout the country, including Westminster Abbey in London. The abbey bells are rung for royal events, including at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.
In the United States, the most famous change ringing tower is at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York. Earlier this year the bells were rung for more than three hours in honor of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
The small group at the Little Rock cathedral is dedicated to this centuries-old tradition made popular in 17th-century England. Unlike chimes or carillons, which are tolled by the striking of hammers, these hand-rung bells don’t produce conventional melodies. Instead, the bells are rung in an almost unending series of patterns, producing a sound with a rich, mellow tone.
As member Philip Buck says, “We don’t do tunes.”
Change ringing is a skill that can take years to master. The Trinity group’s newest potential member is 13 and the oldest is in her 80s. Some are relative beginners with only a few years of practice, while some, like Porter Brownlee, who serves as one of the instructors, have been ringing for 20 years or more.
The tight-knit group of campanologists (bell ringers) has adopted this decidedly unusual hobby as a ministry, one with a vocabulary all its own.
The ropes they pull have sallies (woolen hand grips) and tails (looped ends). Rope pulling moves include hunting and dodging, as well as the more complicated “cat’s ears” and “fish tails.” Ringing patterns range from Rounds and Plain Hunt to Grandshire Triples and even Cambridge Surprise Maximus.
Unlike most church bells in North America, which are hung mouth-side down and sounded by banging the clapper from side toside, change ringing bells are mounted by headstocks onto large wooden wheels. The bells are hung mouth-side up and are rung by pulling a rope running through a channel in the wheel. The initial pull or hand stroke sets the bell in motion, swinging it a little more than 360 degrees for one ring. The second ring comes on the back stroke as the bell returns to the starting point. The positioning - mouth-side up - allows the sound to more easily escape the bell tower.
With the louvered windows of the tower open, the sound of the bells can be heard several blocks away. Inside the belfry the sound is deafening.
The setup is unique but also makes it impossible to play a melody, said Mary Wilson, tower captain. Instead, the bells are rung in patterns or a series of “changes” producing a cascade of sound.
Change ringing is a mathematician’s dream. Depending on the number of bells, thousands, even millions of pattern variations or permutations can be rung. The eight bells at Trinity Cathedral, for example, can be run in more than 40,000 distinctive sequences. Twelve bells, like those at Trinity Church on Wall Street, can produce more than 480 million permutations. A peal of 5,000 changes takes more than three hours.
Change ringing was made popular in England in the 1600s and the bells were a form of communication, calling worshippers to church, tolling for the dead and pealing in celebration of weddings. Bells were also a familiar sound in Colonial America, but over the years the number of active bell towers has dwindled.
Today, according to the North American Guild of Change Ringers, only 45 can be found in North America, including two in Arkansas. The other is at First Presbyterian Church in Texarkana.
Many other churches have bell towers, of course, but most use chimes, recorded music or carillons.
Wilson said interest in change ringing is on the rise and that a handful of churches in the United States have installed bells in recent years, including ones in Seattle, Shreveport and Houston.
The Trinity bells are rung every week.
“We ring for Sunday services, holidays and for weddings,” Wilson said. “Sometimes we are asked to toll for a funeral and only the tenor bell is rung, once for every year of their age.”
The group also ushers in the new year by ringing the bells at the conclusion of the New Year’s Eve service. They also ring on other special occasions, including the installation of a bishop or new dean for the cathedral.
Math or music skills aren’t necessary to be a ringer, and neither is brute strength. Although the bells can weigh 1,000 pounds or more, they can be rung by a child with proper training.
At Trinity, the bells hanghigh inside the belfry and are supported by a steel frame. The bells are arranged so that the ropes running through the wheel channels fall in a circle through holes in the ceiling. This allows the ringers below to stand in a circle, one to a rope, with enough space to maneuver. To ring, the sally is pulled downward, which sets the bell in motion for a full swing. As the bell swings the rope is pulled upward toward the ceiling. Still holding on, the bell ringer then pulls the tail, or the end of the rope, back down. This returns the bell to the starting position. A full rope pull produces two rings of the bell.
The ringer of the lightest bell, the treble, always starts things off with a shout of “Look to!”
That gets the ringers ready, said Scott Stricker. “Then it’s ‘Treble’s going!’ and ‘She’s gone!’ It always begins with the treble.”
Stricker said the ropes are pulled in sequence, with each ringer following a specificbell depending on the change or pattern being rung.
“You are always feeding off the person you follow,” he said.
Above all, successful ringing is a team effort that requires members to rely on listening and coordinated movements.
The conductor can either call out changes aloud or the ringers can follow preset patterns, which is known as method ringing. The ringing always starts with what is known as Rounds. It’s a way to get everyone in sync. As the patterns change and progress, if someone gets out of order or has trouble, the group returns to Rounds to set things right.
Each pull of the rope is a controlled motion and the rope is always in hand. It’s never entirely let loose, because the momentum of the giant bells can whip the rope around the room and the rope can be pulled through the ceiling and come off track from the wheel. Injuries, from rope burns to broken fingers, have occurred, Wilson said.
“It’s not unheard of that someone loses control of the rope,” she said.
Wilson, who has been ringing for about 10 years, got involved at the prompting of Kay Shurgar, another ringer. The group had been having trouble finding new ringers and Wilson gave it a try.
“It’s been one of the most fun and enjoyable things I’ve ever done,” she said. “We socialize together and we’re all just good friends.”
Wilson said the group does have difficulty recruiting new members, because learning to ring can be difficult and timeconsuming. It also takes commitment.
“It takes years to become a really good bell ringer,” she said. “But it’s fun and interesting and very unique.”
Maggie Dearnley joined the group because she got tired of sitting around and waiting while her son practiced ringing. She decided to join in and has been ringing for about 12 years. She recently returned after taking ayear and a half off because of a skiing injury, but is glad to be back. She sees it as a way to serve the church.
“This is our mission,” she said.
About the bells
The bells at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral were cast by the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London in 1987. The foundry is also the maker of the Liberty Bell and Big Ben, the largest ever cast there at a weight of 13 tons.
The cathedral’s ring of eight bells was installed in 1988. Workers had to essentially install a tower within the tower, including a steel frame and concrete pillars, to support the weight of the bells. Before that time the tower had never housed bells.
Getting to the top of the tower isn’t easy. It’s accessible by a series of three metal ladders nailed to the wall.
A narrow walkway surrounds the bells, and louvered windows around the tower can be opened to allow the sound to escape.
The lightest bell is the treble and the heaviest is the tenor. The others are referred to by number and they go up in weight and down in pitch with each number:Treble - 338 pounds No. 2 - 359 pounds No. 3 - 383 pounds No. 4 - 412 pounds No. 5 - 500 pounds No. 6 - 577 pounds No. 7 - 755 pounds Tenor - 1,009 pounds
Each bell is inscribed in honor or in memory of an individual important to the history of the cathedral. The bells also have names.
A small group from the cathedral traveled to London and visited the foundry to witness the casting of the bells.
Information about change ringing is available at nagcr. org.