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The Long, Noisy Tradition of British Bell-Ringing

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008

RUSHDEN, England -- With snowy whiskers and a rotund frame, Alan Marks seems a fitting Santa to bring cheer to the good folk of this small English town 70 miles north of London. His festive gift is the sound of bells -- not the anemic tinkle of sleigh bells, but the joyous, dancing peal of a storybook Victorian Christmas of snow on the ground, wood smoke in the air, and tables creaking with fine food and drink.

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This holiday season, Marks and his fellow bell-ringers at St. Mary's, the Gothic church on the hill, gathered with a single purpose: to make eight bells that together weigh more than four tons swing furiously one floor above their heads.

It's the ultimate heavy-metal music, a distinctly British art form that has found pockets of followers around the globe, including at the Washington National Cathedral and D.C.'s Old Post Office. But it exists as an echo in such places. In Britain, bell-ringing is so prevalent in thousands of old churches that the sound forms a familiar, almost unconscious fabric of life.

That it persists, even thrives, in a nation that seems to have lost religion and in an age dependent on an electronic universe is all the more remarkable. If Scrooge were to visit now, he would be blown away by the cars and the electric lights and the modern dress of the townfolk. But he would be quite at home with the sight, and sound, of the parish church.

The computer age does provide one boon. The abundance of bell-ringing is enshrined on the Web site of BBC Radio 4, where listeners can log on 24/7 and hear ringing from churches across the land on "Bells on Sunday" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/bellsonsunday).

But it's nothing like hearing the bells in person.

Thick stone towers and steeples have a way of transforming the clamorous sound into the melodious call of God, loud in the churchyard but dropping to a comforting whisper in the wheat fields and pastures of the countryside two or three miles away. Many of Britain's churches are close to 1,000 years old. St. Mary's dates to around 1200, though the high, tapering spire, topped with a golden rooster weather vane, was added almost two centuries later.

Bell-ringers figured out that by changing the sequence of the bells, they could produce a continuously shifting melody. This art form, called change ringing, became established across the land in the 17th century.

In Rushden, where the industrialized East Midlands meets the pastoral region of East Anglia, St. Mary's is a landmark, an imposing confection in cream- and rust-colored stone. The writer H.E. Bates, who was born here, fictionalized the church in his 1952 novel "Love for Lydia": "It is a wonderfully fine church. . . . A great spire of soft grey limestone with corner embellishments of chocolate-red ironstone rises up for two hundred and seventy feet from a churchyard of black yews and horse-chestnuts."

He may have exaggerated the height, but it is in the clock tower beneath this great spire that Marks and his band of bell-ringers gather each Friday night to practice. They climb a narrow stone spiral staircase and enter the ringing chamber, a small whitewashed room with chairs around the edge and, in the center, ropes threaded through a chandelier-like frame to the unseen bells above.

Veteran bell-ringer Bob Whitworth demonstrates how the bells work. The bell is bolted to a metal yoke that swings on axles. On one side of the assembly, the rope is guided through a wheellike pulley as much as five feet in diameter. On the other side, a wooden rod moves a horizontal slide to prevent the bell from swinging full circle.

The bell is hung with the mouth up. Once the ringer pulls to set it in motion, momentum takes over, and the bell swings through almost 360 degrees before coming to rest upward. With each pull, the clapper hits one side of the bell just before it comes to rest. On the next pull, the clapper will hit the other side.


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