The bell curve: Thirty years ago, a rich Brit donated some big bells to Washington

Columnist September 24, 2013

It was easy to pick out the bell ringers Monday afternoon in the tower of the Old Post Office. They were the ones dressed most comfortably: the women in flats, the men in shirt sleeves.

They needed freedom of movement. They were about to spend an hour pulling robustly on ropes that dangled overhead, coaxing a cascade of sounds from the bells in the top of the tower.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Everyone else was dressed rather more formally. The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Congress Bells, a gift from Sir David Wills, a British tobacco magnate. Sir David also created the Ditchley Foundation, an organization founded in 1958 to further the understanding between Britons and North Americans. Strobe Talbott, chairman of the American Ditchley Foundation’s board of directors and president of the Brookings Institution, was there. So was Paul Jones, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and Patrick Davies, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy here.

Above everyone’s heads were the bells themselves, 10 in all, modeled after the ones in Westminster Abbey and a bicentennial gift to the United States from Sir David. They didn’t get installed until America was 207 years old because it’s not easy finding a place for several tons’ worth of bells. Congress didn’t want them in the Capitol, so the tower of the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue NW was shored up and the bells were installed there.

Soon the Old Post Office will undergo another transformation as Donald Trump turns the office building/food court into a luxury hotel. The Ditchley people say the Trump people have said all the right things about the bells. The Washington Ringing Society, for example, will still be able to practice and perform what’s known as change ringing in the tower, though for safety reasons, there will be no access to the bells during the construction. (It’s unclear how long that will be.)

Bill Kollar (left) and Ed Donnen of the Washington Ringing Society lower the ropes at the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue NW at Monday's celebration honoring the 30th anniversary of the Congress Bells, a gift from Sir David Wills. (John Kelly/Washington Post)

There was a definite Anglophilic vibe to the room. Though it thinks more globally now, the Ditchley Foundation was created to strengthen the “special relationship” that is perpetually fretted over. It organizes a dozen conferences a year, with titles such as “Germany’s Role in the E.U.” and “The Shale Energy Revolution and Geopolitics.” Academics, politicians, businesspeople and other smart humans get together to discuss the topics around a big table.

Because the comments are safely off the record — “under Chatham House rules” is the nomenclature — it’s hard to know what actually comes of the meetings. The conspiracy-minded could see them as baby Bilderbergs, tiny Trilateral Commissions.

Nothing of the sort, the Ditchley people said. But they would, wouldn’t they?

Ditchley itself sounds like a dream. It’s a massive country house set on 3,000 Oxfordshire acres. Churchill used to spend the occasional weekend there during the war. There’s lots of tea and wine. A staff of about 50 keeps the place running.

It sounds a bit Downton Abbeyish, I said.

“Oh, we would love someone to film something like ‘Downton Abbey’ at Ditchley,” said Catherine Wills, Sir David’s daughter.

A little after 6, the 10 ringers grabbed their ropes and took their places.

You don’t mess around when it comes to big bells. A proper peal lasts four hours. They would be doing a quarter peal: 60 minutes’ worth of that distinctive tumbling sound we associate with royal weddings and coronations.

Or they would be trying to. A peal is not a peal unless the bells are struck in a precise order. Each ringer has to give a tug on his or her rope every 1.2 seconds or so.

“If you’re thinking about the grocery list or getting the kids home from day care, it’s all over, you’re not going to be able to do this,” said Bill Kollar, 59, an engineer from Leesburg who’s been ringing since he was a student at American University 40 years ago. He met his wife, Carolyn, in the bell tower at Washington National Cathedral.

“At this stage in my life, I like to ring around the middle,” said Bill, meaning the not-quite-so-heavy bells. “When I was younger, I rang around the back.”

But Bill gamely took his place at one of the bigger bells and started to pull, as did his nine fellow ringers. Because change ringers work best when not distracted, the Ditchley supporters and I left them to it.

Soon, on the street below, the lovely tones washed over us: Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring. . .

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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