Saturday, August 22, 2009

The sound of England

click photos to enlarge
If there is a single sound that characterises England it has to be that of church bells sounding out across the roofs, trees and gardens of our villages and towns. The methods of ringing church bells that developed in these islands is different from elsewhere. Rather than try to express the intricacies of the two variations in my own imprecise prose, here are much better descriptions from Wikipedia. The first of today's photographs, taken this morning when I ascended the tower of St Mary at Swineshead, shows the bells in their cradles in the bell chamber, and will illustrate some of the points made below.

Change Ringing
In England the bells in church towers are generally hung for full circle ringing: every bell swings through a complete circle (actually a little more than 360 degrees) each time it sounds. Between strokes, it sits poised 'upside-down', with the mouth pointed upwards; pulling on a rope connected to the bell swings it down and its own momentum swings it back up again on the other side.

These rings of bells have relatively few bells, compared with a carillon; six or eight-bell towers are common, with the largest rings in numbering up to sixteen bells. The bells are usually tuned to fall in a diatonic scale without chromatic notes; they are traditionally numbered from the top downwards so that the highest bell (called the treble) is numbered 1 and the lowest bell (the tenor) has the highest number; it is usually the tonic note of the bells' scale.

To swing the heavy bells requires a ringer for each bell. Furthermore, the great inertias involved mean that the ringers have only a limited ability to retard or accelerate their bells' cycle. Along with the relatively limited palette of notes available, the upshot is that such rings of bells do not easily lend themselves to ringing melodies.

Instead, a system of change ringing evolved, probably early in the seventeenth century, which centres on mathematical permutations. The ringers begin with rounds, which is simply ringing down the scale in order. (On six bells this would be 123456.) The ringing then proceeds in a series of rows or changes, each of which is some permutation of rounds (for example 214356) where no bell changes by more than one position from the preceding row.

In call change ringing, one of the ringers (known as the conductor) calls out to tell the other ringers how to vary their order from row to row. Some ringers practice call changes exclusively; but for others, the essence of change ringing is method ringing.

Method Ringing
In method or scientific ringing each ringer has memorized a pattern describing his or her bell's course from row to row; taken together, these patterns (along with only occasional calls made by a conductor) form an algorithm which cycles through the various available permutations.

Serious ringing always starts and ends with rounds; and it must always be true — each row must be unique, never repeated. A performance of a few hundred rows or so is called a touch; approximately five thousand rows make a peal (which takes about three hours to ring). A performance of all the possible permutations possible on a set of bells is called an extent; with nn! possible permutations. Since 7!=5040, an extent on seven bells is a peal; 8!=40,320 and an extent on eight bells has only been accomplished once, taking nearly nineteen hours.

Ringing in English belltowers become a popular hobby in the late 17th century, in the Restoration era; the scientific approach which led to modern method ringing can be traced to two books of that era, Tintinnalogia or the Art of Ringing (published in 1668 by Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman) and Campanalogia (also by Stedman; first released 1677). Today change ringing remains most popular in England but is practiced worldwide; over four thousand peals are rung each year.

St Mary's has eight bells in the key of F. They were cast by Thomas Osborn of Downham Market in 1794. I stopped off for this photograph as we accompanied our guide up to the corona that tops the tower and rings the base of the spire (where the second photograph was taken). For more views of Swineshead church see this collection of earlier blog posts (scroll down page when it appears).

photographs & text (c) T. Boughen

Photo 1 (Photo2)
Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 11mm (22mm/35mm equiv.) (ditto)
F No: f3.2 (4.5)
Shutter Speed: 1/20 (1/1600)
ISO: 400 (100)
Exposure Compensation: 0 (-0.3) EV
Image Stabilisation: On (ditto)