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The art of change-ringing has been practised in churches across the British Isles for centuries. It is almost a British peculiarity, but not quite. At some locations in the United States, and former British colonies, this complex and challenging art is also to be found, but at St. Bride's - no longer.
"Wikipedia" gives the following explanation of change-ringing:
"The idea is to ring a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns called "changes" which comprise an enormous variety of sequences, but do not produce a conventional tune.
The bells are hung in a traditional way, so each is capable of operation by one person. The bell is hung from a special pivoted support called the headstock, at one end of which is a large wheel. The bellrope is arranged so that it rotates the wheel, the headstock, and therefore the bell itself, through about 360 degrees when the ringer pulls on the rope."
I personally knew very little about bell-ringing until I found myself writing something about it for the old "Friends' Newsletter". I remember paraphrasing the nursery rhyme in my title - "Electronics inside, say the bells of St Bride"
(Copies of this masterpiece have long since been recycled, but our situation has changed since it was written!)
In the eighteenth century, St. Bride's and York Minster shared the distinction of each possessing a "ring" of twelve bells - the only two in the country. A ring of six was apparently common; there were a number of "eights" but ten was quite a luxury. The ring of twelve at our church was therefore something very special indeed; we are told that not only were our bells numerous, but that they were of exceptional quality.
Campanology is the technical term for bell ringing and the terminology of the art is equally picturesque, especially when describing the various "peals" that can be rung. Grandsire Triples, Grandsire Caters, Grandsire Cinques, Surprise Bob Maximus, Double Bob Major - these are but five sequences of changes which might be rung.
Likewise the names of the bands of ringers - The Ancient Society of College Youths, the London Scholars, the Cumberland Youths.
Bell ringers are a dedicated band of people to this day - when you consider that it may take several hours to ring a complete peal, physical strength and stamina are essential. We are also told that many wealthy people were among those who came to ring at St. Bride's, and that their splendid carriages were often seen lining Fleet Street.
It is also a peculiar fact that many ringers have very little to do with the church where they practise their art - as the service begins and the bells fall silent, the ringers depart! (Many will seek refreshment and at the same time practise another ancient art, that of "elbow-lifting". I once went on a bell-ringers' outing and know this to be true!)
Returning to our own fair church, it seems that the bells gradually fell into disuse as the Press became established in Fleet Street, largely due to complaints about the noise, and a paucity of enthusiastic ringers. We do know however, that they could be chimed, a method whereby the bells can be sounded by one person, and indeed be used to produce a tune. Obviously the full power of the bells could not be used in this way.
Dewi Morgan recounts in "Phoenix of Fleet Street" that verger Leonard Morgan had played "The year has gone beyond recall, with all its hopes and fears" on the bells during the evening before their destruction, with the church, in 1940. Only a few hours later, the bells came crashing to the ground, as their frame in the belfry was consumed by the fire. History repeated itself - as in the Great Fire, the bells were destroyed, but fragments of the metal were found and put aside.
After the Second World War, it seems that the fragments of bell metal were so safely stored that nobody knew just where! I have been told that when plans for the organ were being considered, the missing metal was found, behind some other less important material, at the West end of the church.
This metal was eventually despatched to the bell foundry of John Taylor, in Loughborough, where it was used to cast one new bell - the one that hangs in our steeple to this day. It was described as the "Coronation Curfew Bell" at that time, which was appropriate, as the church had traditionally been one from which the curfew was rung each evening from early times.
It was intended to be the "tenth" of new ring of twelve - meaning that there would have been two larger bells and nine smaller.
The belfry was cleared, the tower checked and found to be in sufficiently good condition, and holes for the twelve bell ropes were provided in the ceiling of the ringing chamber, which is just above the level of the Minstrels' Gallery.
Alas, it was not to be - the money was not forthcoming, and the single bell remains in splendid isolation. As a stop - gap, an electronic carillon had been installed, also in time for the Coronation in 1953. Good as it was for its time, the damp conditions in the tower did nothing for its reliability, and it too eventually fell into disuse.
A system using tape recording followed, and was still in use when I first came to St. Bride's. Its sound was not too appealing and it was ousted by the present solid state system in the late 1980's. By the mid 90's, it too was not very reliable, but by coincidence, at the same time, a lot of information about the bells was sent to me, as the then PCC Secretary. As result of this, the PCC approved a scheme, supported by Canon John Oates, to make at least our one real bell useable. It was my pleasure to coordinate the practicalities, and so Taylor's of Loughborough renewed their connection with us, by providing a new electric striking hammer, which we operate from the lighting switchboard at the top of the crypt stairs! Sadly, one of its first duties was to toll the bell, following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. On a happier note, it is our custom at Evensong to use the real bell as a "five minute bell" before the service begins. The trick is to stop the electronics, which are now once again in good order, in an artistic way!
Talking of which, I hope John Oates will not mind me mentioning his predilection for pressing buttons!
One hot June evening, I was walking up to church from Blackfriars, when the unmistakable strains of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" sounded forth from our steeple! There followed renditions of "Happy Birthday to You" and "O Come All Ye Faithful", before a more appropriate peal, but at terrific speed!
When I arrived in church, John was feverishly studying the instruction manual, trying to stop his rather surprising broadcast to the neighbourhood! Between us, we eventually managed to stop it, and reset the speed, to something like reality, which was what John had been trying to do in the first place!
It is a tragedy that this church, with its important historic connections to the world of campanology, should no longer have a ring of real bells. Although there have been many attempts to encourage us to acquire a new ring, the practicalities are really against us. It would be very difficult to hoist bells into the tower - a large part of the organ is now in the way!
Access from outside is theoretically possible, but would be hugely expensive. For the foreseeable future, we shall have to be content with the electronic simulation of pealing bells.
Our one real bell serves to remind us of a glorious past in sound and in substance, as its very metal was once part of that famous "ring of twelve".