Introduction to Bellringing
One unique sound of the British countryside is the ringing of church bells which takes place in about 6000 church towers around the country. Only in Britain is change ringing, or the ringing of bells in special sequences, so widely practiced. Bells are an important part of our Church and social history.
To most people, bellringing appears mysterious and highly complicated and in some ways it is, but it can also be fun. Mastering the technique of handling a bell is rather like riding a bicycle, and once you have done it, you never forget. After that it is up to each ringer to decide how deeply involved they want to become with the technicalities.
The Music of Change ringing
There is a magic about the sound of change ringing that many people recognise but it is very different from the music of Beethoven or the Beatles. A ring of bells is not suited to conventional music because most tower bells are large and heavy. If hung in a carillon, conventional tunes can be played on them by striking the bells with hammers. But when the bells are swung, each acts like a pendulum and for change ringing the bells swing full circle every couple of seconds. The time taken for each swing is adjustable by swinging it a little lower or higher. This is the key to English style ringing, making it possible to ring bells accurately in sequence. The order of the sequence can be changed by varying the speed of the bells, but not by very much because of the physical effort needed.
Rounds is a most basic tune – down the scale. To vary the tune, each bell can change position in the sequence but can only move one place at a time. Each row of bells is called a change.
The Bells at St. Mary’s Church
The original three bells were cast in 1716 and the newer additions were cast in 1770, 1839 and 1875. All of the bells were re-cast in 1953 by Messrs John Taylor and each carries an inscription giving details of who paid for recasting and also historical details taken from the old bells. The newly recast bells were re-hung on a new steel bell frame funded by money collected around the village totalling £1666. The Bishop of St. Albans came to dedicate the bells on 28th March 1953. All the details were recorded in an illuminated book which is still on display in the church.
The smallest bell is called the Treble and weighs about 6 hundredweight (or 672 lbs/305 kg). The largest bell is the Tenor, weighing 15 hundredweight ( or 1680 lbs/ 762 kg) which is roughly the weight of 10 men! Ringing in order from the lightest bell to the heaviest in descending order is called ringing ‘rounds’ and this is how each piece of ringing starts and finishes.
When do the Bells Ring?
Bells have traditionally been rung as a means of communication, both religious and secular. The main object of ringing is to call people to prayer and for the glory of God.
At St. Mary’s the bells are rung every Sunday morning from 9 – 9.30 am and most Sunday evenings from 6 – 6.30 pm for regular church services. Many couples ask for bells to be rung after their wedding and the Vicar requests bells for special church services. Sometimes there are visiting bellringers from other churches. Very occasionally, a peal will be rung to mark an important event such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. This involves about 3 hours of bellringing and is not for the faint-hearted!
Of course the bellringers need to practice regularly and this takes place on Tuesday evenings from 7.45 – 9.15 pm. Ringing practice always finishes on time to avoid upsetting those living nearby, especially those with small children. However we should all remember that the church and bells were there long before the houses!
How do you become a Bellringer?
Just come along to our practice night any Tuesday at 7.45 pm and you are welcome to watch us ringing. No visitor will be expected to even touch a rope unless they want to and if they do, then they will be closely supervised to ensure they are quite safe. If you are interested in visiting the belfry, please contact the Ringing Master, Liz Middleton (07952 641529) or Tower Secretary, Mary Rixon (01582 792401).
More ringers are always needed to ensure the bells can be rung every Sunday and for other church services and weddings when requested. Bellringing is an unusual, fascinating and very sociable hobby. There are monthly District ringing practices and the annual tower outing which allows bellringers to travel and try the bells at other towers and each is different.
All of this brings us to the Ringers’ Rules which are dated 1754 and displayed on a board in the belfry at St Mary’s Church. The modern equivalent would be ‘ Terms and Conditions’!
This particular set of rules is attributed to Jos.Brown who served as Parish Clerk and Sexton for 37 years. In 1764 he produced written instructions to the Bellringers in verse:
“All who intend to take these ropes in hand To ring, mark well these lines and understand Which, if with care you read, will plainly see What fines and forfeits are the Sexton’s fee. He that doth break a stay or turn a bell, For the forfeit is a groat, it’s known full well. And carelessly to ring with spur or hat The forfeit is a groat, beware of that. And they that fight or quarell, swear or curse, Must pay two pots, turn out, or else do worse. And for unlocking the steeple door, And for sweeping of the belfry floor, And to buy oil, you know it’s very dear, And for my attendance here If you will observe such rules as these You’re welcome for to ring here when you please. Pray Remember the Sexton JOs. BROWN May 1764
Inscriptions on the bells
- Recast 1953 with the help of the Children of Redbourn (Praise the Lord 1716 H.Knight)
- Recast 1953 by the gift of the people of Redbourn (John Waylett made me 1716)
- Recast 1953 by funds raised by the bellringers of Redbourn Church, Joe Hobbs, Leader (John Waylett made me 1716)
- The work of recasting and rehanging the peal of Six was begun in 1951, David Bickerton being Vicar and Anna Vowe Peake and James Gordon Imrey being Churchwardens, and was completed in 1953, Harold G. Fores being vicar, and Anna Vowe Peake and Kenneth Gilham Betts being Churchwardens. John Taylor and Company, Bellfounders and Bellhangers (Pack and Chapman of London Fecit 1770)
- Recast to celebrate the Coronation of HER GRACIOUS MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II, 2nd June 1953 (Taylor and Symondson, Bellfounders, Oxford London and Loughboro’ 1839)
- Recast 1953 by gifts in memory of dear ones departed (Recast by John Warner and Sons, London. Revd. W.S. Wade, Vicar. Joseph Beaumont, James Hawes, Churchwardens, 1875)
More information about bells and bellringing
www.ringingworld.co.uk - Website of Ringing World magazine
www.hcacr.org.uk - Website of Hertford County Association of Change-Ringers
Compiled by Pauline Ridgwell for the Redbourn Village Website - October 2002