Where young bell ringers go to learn the ropes

At the cathedral, Quilla Roth teaches change ringing, an ancient mix of art and math, to Abigail Bartram, 13.
At the cathedral, Quilla Roth teaches change ringing, an ancient mix of art and math, to Abigail Bartram, 13. (Carol Guzy)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Steve Hendrix
Friday, November 26, 2010

At one end of the 20-foot rope is Tessa Lightfoot, a 13-year-old American teenager topping the scales at 90 pounds. At the other, directly above her head, is a British-made bronze bell weighing more than a quarter of a ton.

Together, they make beautiful . . . silence.

Tessa heaves gamely up and down on the rope as the 627-pound bell, swinging madly through 360 degrees of arc, makes not so much as a ding. During ringing class in the bell tower of Washington National Cathedral, the clappers are stopped as a courtesy to nearby residents.

"We don't want to drive the neighbors crazy," explains instructor Quilla Roth as eight middle-schoolers line up to take their tugs behind her. "Especially when they're just learning, we don't like to sound horrendous."

It's an unusual elective - in several ways. The bells make no noise, and the ropes are hauled by bubbly little Quasimodos in skinny jeans and Aeropostale hoodies.

"It's actually really fun," says Tessa, an eighth-grader at National Cathedral School, next door to the Episcopal church on Mount St. Alban, the city's highest point. "There are really not many other places where you can do this."

In fact, the school says, it is one of only three in the country to offer courses in the ancient art of change ringing, the complex technique of sounding the grand, rhythmic peals of cathedral bells that mark occasions ranging from the end of a Mass to the end of a war.

Twice a week, groups of middle- and high-schoolers from the all-girls National Cathedral School on the Cathedral's Northwest grounds negotiate a route of hidden elevators and spiral stairs up the 300-foot Gloria in Excelsis bell tower, which boasts some of Washington's most stunning views. In a chamber beneath the carillon bells, 10 ropes hang through holes in the ceiling, each connected to bells ranging, in order of pitch, from 608 pounds to 3,588 pounds.

With hunks of metal the weight of Volvos swinging above them like pinwheels, even adult ringers are at risk of being pulled off their feet or tearing muscles. For several weeks, the girls pull only under the close supervision of their teachers.

But that mix of Anglican rite and adolescent verve is one of the signature charms of the Whitechapel Guild, as the school's ringers are known.

"Let's be a little quiet, girls," admonishes instructor Alex Taft as he leads another clutch of chattering students past a cathedral altar near the hidden elevator. "Sorry, Jesus," says one of the girls with a giggle that sets off all the others.

In the carpeted ringing chamber, however, the students are all attention as they line up around the raised circular platform beneath the hanging ropes. A chalkboard is marked with the complex ringing patterns, called methods, that they must learn. But for half an hour, Taft and Roth just drill the girls on the subtle strength needed to control the bells.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company