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`The one loud noise' England makes `to the glory of God'. CHANGE RINGING

By Christopher AndreaeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 1987



Towcester, England

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE 12/21/87 WORLD EDITION (WEEKLY) There are six bells and six ringers. They stand ready.

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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.''