With snowy whiskers and a rotund frame, Alan Marks seems a fitting Santa to bring cheer to the good folk of this small English town 70 miles north of London. His festive gift is the sound of bells not the anemic tinkle of sleigh bells, but the joyous, dancing peal of a storybook Victorian Christmas of snow on the ground, wood smoke in the air, and tables creaking with find food and drink.
This holiday season, Marks and his fellow bell-ringers at St Mary’s, the Gothic church on the hill, gathered with a single purpose: to make eight bells that together weight more than four tons swing furiously one floor above their heads.
It’s the ultimate heavy-metal music, a distinctly British art form that has found pockets of followers around the globe, including at the Washington National Cathedral and D.C.’s Old Post Office. But it exists as an echo in such places. In Britain, bell-ringing is so prevalent in thousands of old churches that the sound forms a familiar, almost unconscious fabric of life.
That it persists, even thrives, in a nation that seems to have lost religion and in an age dependent on an electronic universe is all the more remarkable. If Scrooge were to visit now, he would be blown away by the cars and the electric lights and the modern dress of the townfolk. But he would be quite at home with the sight, and sound, of the parish church.
The computer age does provide one boon. The abundance of bell-ringing is enshrined on the Web site of BBC Radio 4, where listeners can log on 24/7 and hear ringing from churches across the land on “Bells on Sunday” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/bellsonsunday).
But it’s nothing like hearing the bells in person.
Thick stone towers and steeples have a way of transforming the clamorous sound into the melodious call of God, loud in the churchyard but dropping to a comforting whisper in the wheat fields and pastures of the countryside two or three miles away. Many of Britain’s churches are close to 1,000 years old. St Mary’s dates to around 1200, though the high, tapering spire, topped with a golden rooster weather vane, was added almost two centuries later.
Bell-ringers figured out that by changing the sequence of the bells, they could produce a continuously shifting melody. This art form, call change ringing, became established across the land in the 17th century.
In Rushden, where the industrialized East Midlands meets the pastoral region of East Anglia, St Mary’s is a landmark, an imposing confection in cream- and rust-colored stone. The writer H.E. Bates, who was born here, fictionalized the church in his 1952 novel “Love for Lydia”: “It is a wonderfully fine church. . . . A great spire of soft grey limestone with corner embellishments of chocolate-red ironstone rises up for two hundred and seventy feet from a churchyard of black yews and horse-chestnuts.”
He may have exaggerated the height, but it is in the clock tower beneath this great spire that Marks and his band of bell-ringers gather each Friday night to practice. They climb a narrow stone spiral staircase and enter the ringing chamber, a small whitewashed room with chairs around the edge and, in the center, ropes threaded through a chandelier-like frame to the unseen bells above.
Veteran bell-ringer Bob Whitworth demonstrates how the bells work. The bell is bolted to a metal yoke that swings on axles. On one side of the assembly, the rope is guided through a wheel like pulley as much as five feet in diameter. On the other side, a wooden rod moves a horizontal slide to prevent the bell from swinging full circle.
The bell is hung with the mouth up. Once the ringer pulls to set it in motion, momentum takes over, and the bell swings through almost 360 degrees before coming to rest upward. With each pull, the clapper hits one side of the bell just before it comes to rest. On the next pull, the clapper will hit the other side.
The technology is simple but effective. And you don’t need Herculean strength: A 12-year-old could set a one-ton bell in motion. There is one thing to bear in mind, however. “Once the bell starts swinging, you can’t stop it,” said Marks, a 63-year-old retired industrial chemist. “I was at a tower where a rope got under a ringer’s arm and lifted her up, and I moved forward and caught her. There are inherent dangers.” In the old days, there was also the risk that a bell would fall off its mount and crash through the ceiling.
At St Mary’s, the ringing chamber is an oddly calm place. Once a sequence starts with the announcement from the first ringer that “treble’s going, treble’s gone,” these campanologists are held in rapt concentration, as they might execute 60 changes in the ringing order over the next few minutes.
The fury in the belfry above is something else entirely. Marks hands me a pair of ear protectors and we take an even narrower, darker staircase up two flights, past the belfry to a balcony one floor above. I am thinking of a scene in the old television adaptation of the murder mystery “The Nine Tailors,” where the protagonist Lord Peter Wimsey finds himself in a belfry as the bells begin to sound. He faces an agonizing death until his faithful valet rescues him, blood streaming from their ears.
As we stand above the bells, the ringers set them in motion, and I am transfixed by the largest bell, the tenor, wheeling back and forth. At 2,000 pounds, it weighs about the same as the classic VW Beetle, but it is being turned on its back every two seconds.
The sound of all eight bells is unsettling; in addition to the clang of each strike, there seems to be an underlying, throbbing note from some stentorian supernatural force. But the sound is nothing compared with the other sensation, which is of being in an earthquake. The tower is shaking palpably, and the hand reaches, instinctively, for the guardrail.
Shaking is good, apparently; it prevents cracking and damage. But as Haley Barnett, a bell-ringer at Washington National Cathedral, points out: “Noting that and not feeling very strange when you feel the room shaking are two entirely separate things.”
Both the cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue and the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown have a ring of 10 bells cast by the famous Whitechapel Foundry in London. On New Year’s Eve, Barnett and other members of the Washington Ringing Society plan to sound out the old year with half-muted bells between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. The clappers will be unmuted for a second session at midnight to ring in 2009. The group also plans to ring at an inaugural prayer service on Jan. 21, and awaits permission to ring at the Old Post Office during the inaugural parade the day before, Barnett said.
In bell-ringing parlance, a “peal” refers to extended ringing that has at least 5,000 changes. It takes about three hours. Momentous peals sometimes are recorded on the walls of a ringing chamber. At St Mary’s, one such plaque announces the “Plain Bob Major” peal marking the wedding of Whitworth to his wife, Ann Newbury, on a summer Saturday in 1964.
Whitworth has been ringing here for 53 years; Marks has been a ringer for 42 years, the last 30 at St Mary’s. The youngest here is 12-year-old Thomas Coles, considered a competent ringer after 18 months of practice.
In spite of a sense of ageless continuity in this room, the role of the church in England has changed dramatically since Whitworth and Marks first pulled a bell. The global Anglican Communion is deeply divided over homosexuality and other issues. And since World War II, successive generations of Britons have stopped attending their official state church.
There are approximately 50 million people in England, but Sunday attendance in Anglican churches has dropped below 1 million, according to Church of England data released last year.
But it would be a mistake to think that the Church of England is irrelevant in a secular society that some intellectuals have described as post-Christian. It is still the faith of the establishment even if former Prime Minister Tony Blair converted to Catholicism after he left office and the church remains an influential moral voice in periods of political, social and economic crisis.
The thousands of cathedrals, parish churches and village chapels form a priceless inventory of historic architecture and decoration, and some function as concert halls. In 2005, according to the Church of England, 86 percent of the adult population visited a church or other house of worship. And even those who haven’t will have heard the bells.
Some, increasingly, don’t want to hear them.
Whitworth recalls ringing at a church in rural Oxfordshire when a man burst into the ringing chamber. “Who’s in charge and how long is this row going to go on for?” he demanded. “You’re disturbing our wine party on the patio.”
In the east coast town of Aldeburgh, a few residents recently complained about the ringers pulling a three-hour peal once a month.
And what of the ringers themselves? Are they in it to save lost souls or just to make music? “You see ringers come and ring but never attend a church service, but for quite a few of the Rushden ringers, we do see the spiritual side as well,” said Whitworth, a 73-year-old retired teacher.
Before 19th-century reforms in the church, the ringers were a band of musicians paid to ring and who would then “clear off,” Whitworth said. A lot of them would slake their thirst with beer. “There was a time,” Marks said, “when the ringers would have their barrels of beer up in the belfry. The doors were made smaller or bricked up to prevent them from doing this.”
The church took back control of the ringers in the 19th century. “To this day, there is evidence in some ringing rooms of lists of rules and regulations regarding the conduct of ringers,” Whitworth said. “They also introduced swear boxes.”
After a practice session at St Mary’s, seven ringers repaired to a village pub for a glass of ale and to muse about the state of bell-ringing. There was a resurgence of interest at the millennium, said Brenda Dixon, but they could use more ringers in their 20s and 30s. “There’s not as many as there were,” she said. “I still don’t think it’ll die out. It’s addictive to people.”