Change Ringing – Arrival in England

Fifteen years ago this week, I arrived in England to spend a year documenting change ringing. This is the uniquely English method of ringing church tower bells, also handbells, which is based on mathematical permutations rather than melodies or randomness.

My dad’s into bells, and I’d been fascinated with change ringing since I first heard the sound on a trip to England with him ten years before. We heard the bells at Winchester Cathedral, and he explained that it was a band of people who went around like a baseball team, climbing up into the towers of various cathedrals and pulling the ropes. I was 12. How cool was that.

Cut to college, where I was studying English, film, and music. I figured I could go to England and make a movie about bells. As it turned out, so did the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, who awarded me a fellowship to do just that.

So on August 14, 1998, I arrived at Heathrow Airport with a Sony VX-1000 camera on my back, with a mission to learn about bells.

The film was always intended to be experimental and interactive, and at the end of the day, after returning to the States the next summer with 70 hours of footage, I didn’t have the resources to complete it. It became my long-unfinished personal project.

Many of the interviews focused on this ancient technology and social art as it entered the new millennium, and participants said, “what will really be interesting is to look at our current efforts in ten or twenty years.” Well, it’s been that, and some fellow filmmakers recently informed me that this project is not “unfinished,” but “LONGITUDINAL.” I’ll take that.

So I’m dusting off the old Mini-DV tapes and travel journals, and revisiting my year among the bells.

Included here are a few excerpts from my first journal entry. I’d arrived almost a week earlier, and was staying with Tina (then-editor of the Ringing World weekly change ringing journal) and her fiance Simon in Ashford, outside London.


Thursday 8/20
Windsor Great Park, Surrey, UK

… On Saturday, Simon and I bought day travel cards to London (£3.85 with young-person’s discount card) and went to Queen’s Tower at Imperial College. There Simon rang a quarter-peal of Steadman something. Queen’s tower is a free-standing structure – tall – with ten bells. From the top you can look out on the back of the Natural History Museum and the Royal Albert Hall. The bells are particularly heavy, and the tower is made of brick, so when they are all going, the tower sways like a ship at sea.

After an hour, we went to a pub. I had met one of the ringers last time I was in London. Tom, the conductor, I believe. Everyone treated him as their leader.

… I went into London again on Monday to look for an NTSC television and some maps.

… Yesterday, returning from Staines on bike, I stopped to watch a little-league cricket match. It looks like a pitcher tries to knock down sticks, and a batter tries to hit the ball far enough to run back and forth with another batter between another set of sticks. A gate, I think. A bunch of people stand in a circle around them in the outfield. Simon says that some matches last only a day, while others last for five. And polo – I didn’t watch it long enough to see if it was as straight-forward as hockey, but Simon says that they switch sides when people score. In that sense, it’s like ultimate frisbee. That would explain why the polo player let the ball die when he missed it, rather than letting someone else leap on it to score.

Speaking of British things, I saw someone buy a 12-pack of crumpets today. They looked like spongy English muffins.