Change Ringing in Boston and Northampton

This blog is 6 years old today, which means it’s my birthday! Anyway, on to the bells.

My fall break in Massachusetts was not entirely devoted to visiting bookstores. I flew into Boston on Saturday evening and spent the night with a close high school friend and her husband. On Sunday morning, I joined Leland and the Boston band for my first close encounter with change ringing. Here’s my non-ringer’s explanation for non-ringers: change ringing is ringing church tower bells with ropes, one ringer to a bell. Change ringing is not melodic, so the ringers aren’t playing a tune. Rather, the bells are rung in different orders/permutations. There are named patterns that consist of a specific set of permutations. Ringers learn these patterns, called methods, so when the conductor calls out a particular method, they know what their bell is supposed to do. It’s physical, mathematical, and very English. I thought I had some esoteric hobbies, but change ringing (like lined-out hymnody!) makes shape note singing look mainstream.

Church of the Advent

On Sunday morning, I first walked through Back Bay to the Church of the Advent. The sidewalks were paved in red brick, and the front steps of most townhouses were festively decorated for autumn/Halloween, with pumpkins and gourds galore (also, you know, the odd fresh grave in a little front garden). Advent is an Episcopalian/Anglican church, and from what I could glean it’s about as close as you can get to Catholic without recognizing the Pope. Veeery high church. When Leland and his partner, also a ringer, arrived, we ascended the narrow spiral staircase to an anteroom that gave onto the ringing room beyond. There were lots of signs about when to be quiet.

We were there for service ringing, that is, bell ringing as the current service was getting out, so the ringers had to wait for the right moment. Then they went into the ringing room; I was invited to come in too, as long as I did not touch or go near any ropes. The first thing the band had to do was ring the tower bells up (so their mouths were up; this is their rest position when ringers are actively using the bells). After this, I went back to the anteroom while different sets of ringers rang different methods on the bells. I picked up some change ringing jargon over the course of the morning (some of which I may get wrong in this post), but I have to admit that all the methods sounded the same to me. It’s kind of beautiful to watch, though, without even seeing the bells: the ringers’ movements are very fluid, and it all looks like this somewhat hypnotizing human machine.

Simon the church cat

After about twenty minutes of ringing, we went downstairs and around the corner for the fellowship hour. Advent has a resident church cat, Simon, who was very sweet! Possibly because he could butter people into sharing treats from the table with him.

Next we walked to Old North Church, of Paul Revere fame (he rang the same bells that the Boston band still rings!), for more service ringing. The ringing room of Old North felt a bit more rustic (all wood and brick), and I perched on the staircase that led to the upper stories of the tower to watch. When the bells rang, the whole tower thrummed. A few methods in, Leland and I went through the door at the top of my steps, climbed another staircase, and then climbed a sort of stair-ladder hybrid to a platform just overlooking the bells. From here, with ear protection, we watched the bells swing up and down as the ringers below handled the ropes for the next pattern.

The bells of Old North

The band rang at Old North for about an hour, and then we all had lunch at the Boston Public Market. I went back to my friend’s place to pick up my stuff and took the T to Cambridge to meet up with Leland again. At his partner’s apartment, we had tea, and then they brought out a set of handbells to try to teach me to ring some changes. The actual ringing technique is different from the technique I’m accustomed to from ringing in handbell choirs; there are two strokes, the way there are with tower bells. This was a little awkward, but much more difficult was trying to ring permutations. They’d given me the two bells that rang “symmetrically,” which was supposed to make the task easier, but as soon as the changes began, I found myself completely lost. It was like my brain had hit a wall; it was actually kind of impressive. We switched from six bells to five, and with only one bell, I was able to keep up a bit better, thinking to myself something like, This time through I ring in position one, this time through in position two…

Soon after the handbell ringing, Leland and I drove to Northampton, where on Monday evening I would get one more dose of change ringing in the tower of Smith College. The tower is not as pretty on the outside and not as atmospheric on the inside as the towers in Boston, but you do get to climb a ladder to reach the ringing room. The group here silenced the bells and rang using a simulator (that is, they were ringing the muted bells, and a computer played bell sounds synchronized to their strokes, because apparently not everyone around the tower loves listening to bell practice). I watched and listened for a bit (Leland gave me some things to keep my ear out for, which made the methods more intelligible), and then Leland gave me a lesson in handling a bell. Conclusion: it’s hard! And that’s just one part of change ringing because then there are all the methods to learn!

Smith tower ringing room (upwards leads to the bells)

Later, I started poking around the shelves underneath the benches against the brick walls of the ringing room. There were stacks of books about ringing. Leland suggested one with anecdotes from the history of change ringing. There was a whole section on women and change ringing, including a rather hilarious excerpt from a letter or somesuch in which the writer said that the tower was one of the few places where men could experience friendship with each other, and with the presence of a woman it just wasn’t the same, so couldn’t women leave men this one thing?

When Leland first explained change ringing to me, years ago, he said that in his experience, when you first encounter it, “either you get it and it instantly seems like the most enjoyable activity imaginable or you don’t and it just sounds totally weird.” I think I rather regrettably fall into the latter category, but I’m glad at least to have seen and heard actual change ringing and to have stood in a tower watching Paul Revere’s bells sound at my feet.

 

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