The Ringing World

In 1998, I received a fellowship to document English bell ringing.

Tuesday 8/25/98

Today I went in to the Ringing World office, which is a small room in the top, back part of a printer’s facilities, next to large vats of photochemical fluid – mainly fixer and ink. I laid out a photo spread… Bells and printing – this is my dad’s dream…

My main contact in the bell ringing world was Tina, then-editor of The Ringing World. This is an international journal about change ringing which has been published weekly since 1911. It has news, gossip, and ads, although its main function is a record of peals and quarter peals.

That needs a bit more explanation.


Change Ringing music is based on mathematical permutations, where the bells’ order is never repeated. A simple example on 4 bells (tuned as a descending major scale) would be:

and then 1234

This is most often rung on large tower bells, with a band of ringers pulling ropes, one person per bell.

Bells can’t move more than one place in the sequence between each row due to physical limitations — once it gets swinging, you can only increase or decrease the ringing rate so much, so you can stay in place or swap with your neighbor by ringing slightly faster or slower.

Each row is called a “change,” hence change ringing.

Towers typically have 6, 8, 10, or 12 bells; more bells mean more unique rows and longer lengths.

Above is an example of “plain hunting” on four bells, where each bell swaps places with its neighbor, then the first and last bells stay in place while the inner bells swap, and repeat. That will only get you so far, so other patterns exist following the basic swap-one-or-none rule. Each pattern is known as a “method,” and once through takes several minutes or more depending on the number of bells.

Here’s what a method called Plain Bob Minor looks like (“minor” means it’s for six bells)

(image swiped from Wikipedia)

An individual ringer just has to memorize this shortish method. Each ringer starts at a different place on the pattern, but it’s the same method looping around. If you don’t mess up, the bells fit together, making it a perfect musical canon.

Sometimes the first/highest/”treble” bell rings a different pattern than the rest, and sometimes the last/lowest/”tenor” bell rings at the end every row on a method with an odd number of active bells. Basically there’s a lot of counting and concentrating.

Now there are several points in a method when you can swap some bells outside the normal pattern, and then continue on. This way an individual ringer only has to remember a short pattern that repeats, but the actual sequence is different from the previous time through.

String these together, and you can ring a large number of unique changes.

Ringing 5,000 or more unique changes is known as a “peal,” and usually takes around three hours depending on the weight of the bells. Ringing 1250 or more changes is known as a “quarter peal,” and takes around 45 minutes.

Most change ringing takes place in shorter lengths, during practice or before a church service. But peals and quarter peals are the goal. Every one has been recorded in The Ringing World since 1911, and in The Bell News before that back to 1881.

I volunteered my services to The Ringing World while working on my project. They got a free reporter and intern, and I had an inside-scoop and credibility with ringers.

The office was in Guildford, south of London. You walk half a mile along a canal path from the train station to get there.

I wrote my first article after attending a three day ringing course over the August bank holiday weekend, which involved driving through the countryside around Winchester. Here’s my first attempt at ringing humor, aimed at a very specific audience.