All posts tagged change ringing

Digitizing Again

I’ve just digitized my 73 hour-long mini DV tapes from 1998… again. It’s footage for a documentary about English change ringing, shot on a Sony VX-1000 camera.

I had access to a Media-100 system for a few months when I returned to the States, beginning this project’s post production odyssey.


That editing system had a massive 12-gigabyte hard drive array (one hour of DV footage is just over 13 gigs), so the initial round of digitizing was selective and very low resolution.

It was years before a personal editing system was affordable. Since then, I’ve made rough cuts of scenes in Final Cut Pro and Avid.

Now, a 2 TB drive is fairly cheap, so I just imported it all at DV resolution with Adobe Premiere. I’m not working with the footage just yet, but now I can backup multiple copies of the raw. Always a good thing.

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.


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.