Unlike bells in mainland Europe which are mostly hung for swing chiming with a rope or lever attached to a 'headstock' (a heavy piece of wood or metal which sits across the shoulders of the bell), English church bells revolve through 360° - referred to as 'full circle ringing'. This system of ringing developed from the mid-I6th century onwards. Each bell is hung in a frame and the bearings at each side of the headstock allow the bell to rotate through 360°. The bell is fitted with a wheel and rope and is rung from the floor below by the ringer pulling on the rope, which passes around the wheel which is attached to the headstock. The bell starts in the 'mouth down' position and has to be rung 'up before ringing can commence. The ringer does this by pulling the rope repeatedly, gradually making the bell swing higher and higher until it rotates through a full 360° every time the rope is pulled. Once raised, the bell completes one revolution at each pull of the rope, from mouth up to mouth up and then back the other way, the bell striking once towards the end of each revolution when the 'clapper' inside the bell strikes against the inner rim (the `soundbow). To prevent the bell turning through more than 360°, a wooden bar attached to the headstock catches on a moving 'slider' attached to the frame beneath the bell. After raising, a bell at rest is mouth upwards in the 'up' position.
Bells are traditionally rung down the scale from the highest note to the lowest, which is referred to as ringing in 'rounds'. The order in which they sound can be varied, but due to the physical constraints of the bell mechanism, each bell can only move one place at a time in the sequence. Change ringing involves moving bells to a new position in the sequence to produce a different 'row' or 'change'. Different sequences of changes are referred to as 'methods'. When ringing a method the bells begin in rounds and changes are rung according to the required pattern set out in the method, returning to rounds without repeating any row along the way. Sequences of changes produce musical patterns, with the different notes of the bells weaving in and out of each other. Ringers are required to memorise the complicated patterns of methods for change ringing. Ringing a 'peal' requires at least 5,000 changes to be rung, beginning and ending in rounds without any repetition of changes. A peal on the 12 bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields takes approximately 3 and a half hours to ring.
Almost certainly. Ringing is within the intellectual and physical reach of anyone who can ride a bicycle. If you can count you know all the mathematics you need and you can become a very good ringer without knowing anything else about music.
For more information visit the Discover Bellringing website here (external website).
We do not teach at St Martin in the Fields but we can suggest places to learn.