John Bryce, ‘Oranges and Lemons’, wood engraving on seven endgrain boxwood blocks, Marianne Fisher on Jasper Snowdon, Diagrams

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

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Imagine you are walking in the English countryside and come to a village. As the day is hot and the church is open, you step inside to look around and rest in the predictably cool and dim interior. There are some things that the vast majority of church buildings in the British Isles seem to share: the ‘odour of sanctity’ (a combination of furniture polish, lilies and slightly damp stonework); the kneelers stitched by parishioners; a wall display or prayer tree made by the Sunday-school children; and a series of polite little notices – ‘Please close the door. PIGEONS!!!’

And then there are the books. Each church has its Bible, obviously, stacks of hymn books ready to be handed out on Sundays, and aged copies of the Book of Common Prayer, these perhaps kept in a glassfronted cabinet and used only by the few faithful who venture out for Evensong. All these you would expect to find as you wander around, your eyes gradually growing used to the shadows after the bright sunshine outside.

There is, however, another book. Behind a locked door, in an upper room, there is likely to be a slim quarto volume that you might not expect. You must be intrepid to reach it: you will need a key to unlock the door; you will need to climb a ladder or a spiral stair; there may be narrow passages through the thick walls, or boarded walkways through the roof-space, running over the top of the vaulted ceiling of the church below. Finally you will pass notices: ‘No Entry!’ ‘Danger!’ ‘Don’t Touch the Ropes!’

We have, of course, reached the ringing chamber, and the book we’ve been seeking is Jasper Snowdon’s Diagrams (1881), published originally by the author and since 2011 by the Yorkshire Association of Change Ringers. It is now in its fourteenth edition, and there is a copy in just about every tower with bells, not only in England but also in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and anywhere else in the world where change ringing is practised:

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Imagine you are walking in the English countryside and come to a village. As the day is hot and the church is open, you step inside to look around and rest in the predictably cool and dim interior. There are some things that the vast majority of church buildings in the British Isles seem to share: the ‘odour of sanctity’ (a combination of furniture polish, lilies and slightly damp stonework); the kneelers stitched by parishioners; a wall display or prayer tree made by the Sunday-school children; and a series of polite little notices – ‘Please close the door. PIGEONS!!!’

And then there are the books. Each church has its Bible, obviously, stacks of hymn books ready to be handed out on Sundays, and aged copies of the Book of Common Prayer, these perhaps kept in a glassfronted cabinet and used only by the few faithful who venture out for Evensong. All these you would expect to find as you wander around, your eyes gradually growing used to the shadows after the bright sunshine outside.

There is, however, another book. Behind a locked door, in an upper room, there is likely to be a slim quarto volume that you might not expect. You must be intrepid to reach it: you will need a key to unlock the door; you will need to climb a ladder or a spiral stair; there may be narrow passages through the thick walls, or boarded walkways through the roof-space, running over the top of the vaulted ceiling of the church below. Finally you will pass notices: ‘No Entry!’ ‘Danger!’ ‘Don’t Touch the Ropes!’

We have, of course, reached the ringing chamber, and the book we’ve been seeking is Jasper Snowdon’s Diagrams (1881), published originally by the author and since 2011 by the Yorkshire Association of Change Ringers. It is now in its fourteenth edition, and there is a copy in just about every tower with bells, not only in England but also in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and anywhere else in the world where change ringing is practised: America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand . . . The art of change ringing – ringing bells in particular patterns rather than crashing them all together at once – was a peculiarly English innovation. The earliest references are from the eastern counties of England around the year 1600, but the landmark publication came in 1668 with Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman’s co-written Tintinnalogia.

The technological breakthrough that allowed the Exercise, as change ringing is known, to develop was the realization that bells could be hung on a large wheel so that the mouth of the bell can swing through a full 360 degrees. By using the rope to vary the energy in that swing, the skilled ringer can exercise very fine control over the tons of metal turning rhythmically above his or her head.

Each ringer operates one bell only (though some particularly fine ringers can handle two as a party piece), and the whole endeavour works by pairs of bells swapping places according to a
predetermined sequence. Every bell must sound once before any of the others can sound again, and each time your bell sounds you can climb either one place down the order (for example, sounding third instead of fourth), or one place up (sounding fifth instead of fourth), or you can stay where you were.

Using these simple rules, many different sequences have been developed, all moving the bells from their starting point in ‘rounds’ (ringing down the scale from highest-pitched bell to lowest), through a set of changes, and back into rounds without any repetition. Each order of bells must appear only once, or else the ringing is deemed ‘false’. As in a part-song such as ‘London Bridge’ or ‘Frère Jacques’, everyone follows the same path. The difference is that whereas in a part-song everyone starts at the beginning, each singer waiting his or her turn to come in, in ringing the bells all set off together – like Tube trains all departing different stations on the Circle Line at the same time.

There are literally thousands of these sequences, referred to as ‘methods’. Some are very old, like Grandsire Triples, which was already well established around 1700; others are relatively new, like
Rook and Gaskill, which dates from 2003. Indeed, people are still discovering and naming new methods today. Some methods are simple, such as the Plain Bob family; others are fiendishly complicated, like Orion Surprise Maximus. Change ringing is commonly practised on anything between four and sixteen bells – though six, eight, ten and twelve are the most usual numbers – and the duration can be anything from a few minutes’ ‘service touch’ before worship, to a quarter peal (about 50 minutes), a peal (about 3½ hours), or an epic ‘long length’. Some readers will be familiar with Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors (1934), in which Lord Peter Wimsey participates in a 9-hour performance of Kent Treble Bob, but the current record dwarfs that not-unconsiderable achievement: 40,320 changes of Plain Bob Major, rung in 17 hours 58 minutes at the Loughborough Bell Foundry in 1963.

But let us return to Diagrams, as it is ubiquitous among ringers from the newest learners to the superstars pushing the boundaries of the Exercise. Jasper Snowdon was born in Ilkley, Yorkshire, in 1844. His father was a vicar, and Jasper probably learnt to handle a bell as a teenager. He became the first President of the Yorkshire Association of Change Ringers on the society’s formation in 1876, and he wrote a number of respected books on ringing before his death from typhoid fever in 1885.

One of those books was Standard Methods in the Art of Change Ringing, which comprised two parts: the first, Letterpress, contains mostly textual description and has sunk into relative obscurity; the second, Diagrams, goes from strength to strength. Diagrams is a book not of words but of pictures. Or, more accurately, it is a book of lines, numbers and peculiar names. It contains a selection of the more commonly rung methods, showing the paths you need to learn in order to ring them. The treble (the smallest bell) follows a simple line, shown in red; the other bells ‘do the work’, which is marked in blue. The numbers in circles indicate where each bell starts when the  conductor (the person in charge) says ‘Go’. Diagrams also shows you what to do if the conductor calls ‘Bob’ or ‘Single’ – instructions that shuffle the bells around so that different rows (that is, orders of bells) can be reached, thus allowing the ringing to continue for longer without being false or coming back into rounds too soon.

My mother and my partner, who both learnt to ring before I did, have the ‘old’ version of Diagrams, which is bound in red cloth. I have the ‘new’ one, which is bound in blue faux leather. Both bear the single word DIAGRAMS in gold capital letters across the front. Both versions start with Minimus methods (rung on four bells), then move on to Doubles (on five), Minor (six), Triples, Major, Caters, Royal, Cinques and, finally, Maximus (rung on twelve bells). My version contains more methods, but the old red one is more spaciously laid out and is printed on heavier, cream-coloured paper. I confess I prefer the old one, though my copy – inscribed from my mother for my birthday in 2014 – is dear to me nonetheless.

Most tower copies of Diagrams fall open at particularly well-used pages – Plain Bob Minor, Grandsire Triples, Yorkshire Major – but a personal copy carries more intimate traces. The earlier sections of mine are particularly heavily used. Some pages are marked with slips of paper or sticky notes, among them conventional methods such as Stedman Doubles, St Nicholas Doubles and London Surprise Major, but also some peculiarities – why did I mark Middlesex Bob Triples and Grandsire Minor, I wonder? Bristol Surprise Major is annotated with pencil B’s and H’s, traces of my working out which blows are at backstroke and which at hand. Grandsire Doubles, I notice, is besmirched with tomato sauce – I must have been poring over it as I ate dinner before going out to an evening practice. Plain Bob Doubles bears a large tick and the date 2014. This is mysterious, as it is the only method so marked. Perhaps I had an abortive scheme to tick each method off as I rang it, but since my first quarter peal of Bob Doubles was in 2012, that seems unlikely.

My partner would roll his eyes at such vagueness. He is scrupulous in his record-keeping and maintains an enormous spreadsheet that lists every tower he has ever rung at, every peal and quarter peal scored, and who it was rung with. This is by no means unusual. There are even some ringers who record every performance lost as well, and the reason – ‘conductor error’, ‘rope broke’, ‘ringing not good enough’. Sometimes a performance is unsuccessful for a more colourful reason. Someone’s bra strap or waistband may give way, a member of the public might gain access and start chatting to (or haranguing) the ringers, or a worker might appear to service telecommunications equipment mounted on the tower. I even know of one occasion on which the churchwarden called the police because she heard the bells going and thought someone had broken into the tower.

Some of these stories are written up and sent to the ringers’ weekly magazine, The Ringing World. Though it sounds like the sort of magazine that features as a guest publication on Have I Got News for You (as, indeed, it has done), this is actually a much-valued part of the ringing landscape. There are usually several issues knocking around in the ringing room, along with Diagrams and the other paraphernalia of tower life. My local tower goes a step further and has stacks of them piled against the walls going back decades, perhaps more. The tower captain keeps looking at them sheepishly and remarking that he ‘really ought to get rid of them’, but he hasn’t yet, and so they stay – a record of a ringing past that chimes with the name-plates above the hooks in the tower wall, each recalling some long-dead gentleman who once hung his hat and coat there before catching hold of his rope. We respect our traditions in the ringing community, for better or worse.

As I write this, of course, all our traditions seem to be under threat. With the United Kingdom in lockdown, and churches closed, the bells have been silent for weeks. This is the longest period without ringing since the end of the Second World War (and the longest period without public worship in England and Wales since the Interdict in the reign of King John). As yet we have no idea when we will be able to ring again, and it seems likely that, when we do go back, there will have to be serious changes in how we go about it. One of the casualties may be the shared tower copy of Diagrams, banished as a potential harbourer of the virus. But maybe not. When change ringing began people still lived in fear of the Plague. The Exercise has weathered much and will, I sincerely hope, survive this too.

So next time you pass a church, just think of that little red or blue book high above your head – not much to look at, hardly even readable, and yet just waiting to have its mysteries made manifest in the joyous pealing of the bells.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Marianne Fisher 2020


About the contributor

Marianne Fisher lives and works in rural Monmouthshire. When not on the end of a bell-rope, she is generally to be found gardening, making cider or enjoying the countryside with her pack of whippets.

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