Towcester, England — THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE 12/21/87 WORLD EDITION (WEEKLY) There are six bells and six ringers. They stand ready.
The young woman on the treble bell says quietly: ``Look to. ... Treble's going. ... She's gone.''
Then comes the rhythmic lifting and falling, the upward extending of arms, the intense concentration. Then, apparently far up above our heads, the familiar down-the-scale repetitions sound out, over and over, always ending with the deep ``bong'' of the 14 hundred weight tenor bell. It's age-old, this insistent clang and ring. Tennyson called it the ``mellow lin-lan-lone of the evening bells.''
It's a frosty Wednesday night. The Towcester Society of Ringers - of ``change ringers'' to be exact - is rehearsing. Christmas and New Year make this a busy time for ringers, but all year round these enthusiasts practice their art: twice on Sundays, just after weddings on Saturdays, and on numerous special days. On Wednesday the belfrey of St. Lawrence's 500-year-old tower is shuttered, to avoid disturbing the neighbors.
The ringing platform is a third of the way up the winding stone stairs. It has the cosy feeling of a clubhouse: It's heated somewhat by Calor gas, carpeted, and the walls carry notices and cartoons and shields (trophies won by these county champions). A playpen sits in the corner - for ringers' babies, though none are here tonight.
I'm here to see if the mysteries of this quintessentially English ``sport'' - first developed (alongside fox-hunting and fishing) by enthusiastic aristocrats in the 15th and 16th centuries - might not be entirely beyond the ken of a 20th-century layman. They are, of course. But this dimness on my part doesn't deter the Towcester (pronounced ``toaster'') ringers from demonstrating their astonishing skills. Nor does it prevent Andrew Wilby, a top-class ringer and the group's ``conductor,'' from offering patient explainations.
The six ropes appear through square holes in the oak-timbered ceiling. The bells range from the treble (No. 1) down to the tenor (No. 6). Each bears an inscription; the most recent dates back to 1725: ``RING BOYES AND KEEP AWAKE FOR MR WIL-LIAN HENCHMANS SAKE.''
``They're ringing what are called `rounds,''' Andrew explains. ``They pull on the colored bit - that's the `sally'; it sends the bell round one way. Then on the `tail-end,' which pulls the bell back round the other way.''
Change ringing developed when ringers began to realize the control they could achieve by starting to ring with the bells set with their mouths up. Ringers found that the higher a bell was swung, the more control they had. On each pull, the bell swings right round ``up to the balance,'' again. A ``hand-stroke'' pulls the bell one way, a ``back-stroke'' pulls it the other. The clapper strikes each time.
The word ``change'' describes variations made to the ``rounds.'' This is where the fun begins. Andrew calls some changes to illustrate: ``Four to five!'' Then, later: ``Two to three!'' The order of the notes alters obediently.
Translating this, he says: ``So now two pairs have crossed over - 2 and 3, and 4 and 5. Treble and tenor are still starting and ending. Now we'll swap the 2nd and 5th. So then they'll be ringing 1, 3, 5 followed by 2, 4, 6. This is called ``Queen's Change'' and it's supposed to be pretty!''
A change can be held as long as you want. Or as briefly. ``That's the way Change Ringing developed: They started doing it quicker and quicker.''
To show what he means, he accelerates the changes until I am bewildered. Simultaneously, he provides a running commentary like a radio man at the races, calling each change and explaining. ``Now we'll move the treble up to the back and then back down to the front. ONE TO THREE!'' The six ringers continue their solemn ups-and-downs with composure, and the order of the notes alters as if by magic. It was only later that one of them said, ``You have to con-centrate like hell to get it right!''
``The striking,'' Andrew says, ``is supposed to be absolutely even - which is a lot harder than it would appear. TWO TO ONE!''
Then he speeds up again and subjects the band to a rapid-fire succession of changes ``every two blows.'' Leaning against the stone wall, I can feel the tower move. At last Andrew brings the ringers ``back in rounds again,'' which is where they always end.
That bout over, they discuss what they'll practice next.
``John,'' says Andrew to John Kees, a young man who started ringing in 1983, ``have you done that London yet?''
``No,'' says John, ``by New Year I said.''
``Yeah!'' says someone else with mock scepticism, ``WHICH New Year is what we want to know!''
``Fine,'' cuts in Andrew, terminating the good-natured banter. ``Ring Cambridge.''
So they ``ring Cambridge'' and Andrew sets out to explain ``methods'' (with names like ``London Surprise Minor'') and ``calling a bob'' and ``dodging'' and what ``the extent'' means and ``attempting a full peal.''
``Take my word for it: With seven bells - or rather eight (that is, with the tenor ringing at the back all the time) - you can get 5,040 changes. It takes over three hours.''
Early in ringing history, this became ``the standard performance. ... Over 5,000 changes [without pause] is known as a `peal.' You can do it on five bells, but it's pretty unpleasant. Bad enough on six, really!''
When the rehearsal is over, the band repairs to the Saracen's Head, their habitual pub at the other end of the main street (which is, in fact, the ancient Roman road called Watling Street). Here the social side of bell ringing shows up. These devotees are working mothers, computer experts, telephone engineers. There are close family connections between many of them: Bryan Gross and his wife, for example, are both Towcester ringers, and so (since age 9) is their 14-year-old son, Stuart.
The Englishness of change ringing is emphatic. In Scotland there is hardly any of it; in Wales only a little. Ireland has about 30 towers with rings of bells in them. England has some 5,000. Today the growth areas outside England (where the number of ringers keeps increasing, except in small villages) are in Australia and in the northern tier of the United States.
On goes the talk. Remember the peal that failed when Bill's trousers descended and we couldn't go on! The sight of his long johns tucked into black silk socks was too much! What about the time Jon and Joanne were bringing their newborn daughter home from the maternity ward and Andrew rushed out of the tower to ask them to ring because he was short of ringers? The baby went into the tower before she had even been home!
``Really, it's almost a way of life,'' Andrew muses. ``In a way,'' he adds, ``bells are the perfect musical instrument.'' He tells how Tchaikovsky said as much when he heard them in London. ``The ringer,'' he said, paraphrasing the composer, ``pulls the rope and then way above him in the tower this sound happens and the sound is completely unaffected by the ringer.'' The others agree.
``You tend to disassociate yourself with what's going on up there,'' says Janet. ``You're just pulling a rope ... and the noise is coming from somewhere.''
That noise is what mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers called ``the one loud noise that is made to the glory of God.''
``And that's not a bad way of putting it, '' says Andrew.