- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.,’ 1850

Everyone talks about ringing in the new year, but a few Washingtonians will literally do just that this weekend. The members of the Washington Ringing Society will ring in the old and the new in a grand, clamorous tintinnabulation of tower bells tomorrow and Saturday at the Washington National Cathedral and at the Old Post Office downtown.

The blast of sound is not to be missed — but it’s not to be savored too closely, either.

“Anyone up in the belfry then would be deaf in three to four minutes and dead soon,” says Mary Clark of Arlington, ringing master of the Washington Ringing Society.

The Society rings the bells at the cathedral and at the post office for the new year, on other national holidays and other ceremonial occasions. To make sure the peals go off without a hitch, rehearsals are held every Tuesday night high in the central tower of the cathedral — one of only about 40 towers in the United States and Canada to house active peal bells.

Above a round, carpeted platform in the ringing room, 10 ropes tied at the end in loose knots hang through the ceiling like a circle of nooses. About a third of the way up each rope is a long piece of dark blue or purple wool called a “sally.”

“The sally saves your hand,” explains Mrs. Clark, who doubles as director of Instrumental Music at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.

“Without it, your hand would be shredded. Ringers don’t wear gloves. You and the bell become one. Experienced ringers feel every nuance of the bell’s sound. With gloves on, you couldn’t do that.”

As the ringers gather for rehearsal and help themselves to refreshments, a few of their number climb a set of lighthouse-like iron stairs into the belfry, where 10 bronze bells — ranging in weight from about 600 pounds to nearly 2 tons — sit cradled in sturdy wooden frames.

The ringers carefully move the pieces of wood that hold the clappers right in the middle, silencing the bells, then return to the ringing room and announce: “We are down.”

With everyone’s ears safely away from the deafening sounds in the belfry, some of the more experienced ringers work the ropes to move the bells into the mouth-up position.

“The only way to control the bell is to start from the mouth-up position,” says Mrs. Clark.

Each bell is attached to a wooden wheel with a rope around it. One pull of the rope swings the bell from the mouth-up position in a full circle and back to the up position. With the next pull, the bell swings in the other direction.

“It doesn’t take much leverage,” says ringer Paula Fleming, a retired Smithsonian archivist who lives in Annandale. “Gravity and physics take over.”

It does, however, take control and teamwork to get a smooth, even sound.

“We start with rounds, ringing down the scale, from the treble to the tenor, trying to get a smooth sound — not lumpy,” says Mrs. Clark, as six ringers take their places on the platform — some on raised steps for added height. “Rounds are used to get a nice rhythm going, and anytime there’s a mess-up, you go back to rounds.”

• • •

The ringers are getting a nice rhythm going, pulling the ropes and then catching the sally, and David Lindsay of Silver Spring, a retired NASA rocket scientist and neophyte ringer, is watching admiringly from the sidelines.

“It’s only my second week,” he explains. “See that woman in the white blouse?” he asks, indicating Quilla Roth, one of the two tower masters. “It’s beautiful what she can do — so consistent.”

Mr. Lindsay joined the ringers’ society with his daughter, Heather Lindsay, 28, a biologist who works for the Union of Concerned Scientists and lives across the street from the cathedral.

“I noticed that on Tuesday nights the cathedral went crazy with bells,” she says. “I thought it would be so simple…The first week I just observed — I didn’t even touch a rope. You need to get the physical motion down, then learn the timing, and, at some point, the patterns.”

The patterns are where the term “change ringing” comes in.

“Change ringing is a purely English thing,” says Mrs. Clark, who is wearing a black T shirt adorned with an image of the cathedral’s west rose window.

Indeed, dear to the hearts of change ringers everywhere is British writer Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery novel, “The Nine Tailors,” first published in 1934, which immortalized the quintessentially English precision of the art and its place in Anglican parish life.

“When you hear bells ringing in continental Europe, they’re being swung randomly,” Mrs. Clark says. “This type of ringing is more mathematical.”

Since it takes about two seconds for a peal bell to ring and be ready to ring again, these huge bells can’t play tunes.

“If we tried to play “Jingle Bells,” it would be the slowest “Jingle Bells” you every heard,” explains Mrs. Clark.

Instead, the ringers play mathematical patterns, or “methods,” constantly changing the order of the bells that are rung. Hence, “change ringing.”

One of the basic “methods,” known as “Plain Hunt,” begins with the pattern 1,2,3,4,5,6, if there are six bells in use — as there are on this rehearsal evening. On a signal from the conductor, who is also one of the ringers, the “band” switches the pairs.

” ‘Plain Hunt’ is like ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’ Then you tell somebody to switch,” chimes in Ed Donnen of Annandale, a “computer geek for the government” who is both a ringer and the Mr. Fix-It, or “steeple keeper,” for the group.

Tonight he is splicing rope and wrestling with the problem of bolts sheared off the clapper of the Number 4 bell, which is temporarily out of commission.

“I’ve worked as an aircraft mechanic,” says Mr. Donnen. “I like bells. They’re slow machines with different sets of problems than any other machines.”

The more bells in use, the longer the bells can be rung without repeating a pattern. With eight bells, for example, a band of ringers can ring 40,320 times without repeating a row. A full peal requires 5,000 or more changes with no break and no switching ringers. If there’s any kind of mess-up, the attempt doesn’t count as a successful peal.

“We rang a successful peal on the Fourth of July,” says Mrs. Clark, smiling happily.

• • •

The ringers will have a busy New Year celebration. Usually it culminates with an attempt at a full peal on New Year’s Day but this year, with several old hands out of town, they will make do with a quarter peal — 1,260 changes — at the cathedral on Saturday.

They begin their weekend at noon tomorrow, New Year’s Eve, by ringing the bells at the Old Post Office Building.

Later tomorrow, society members will deck the ringing room at the Cathedral with colored lights and put out a holiday spread of food and drink. At 10:30 p.m. they’ll ring a half-muffled quarter peal, which will take about 50 minutes.

“We put a leather cup on one side of each clapper,” Mrs. Clark explains. “When the bell swings one way, it makes a muffled sound, like an echo. We use this in times of mourning — as when President Reagan died.

“The old year is dying. We’re saying goodbye to the old year. At about 11:30, we’ll start taking the muffles off. They have to be very tightly strapped, and it takes about half an hour. Then, we’ll get ready for midnight.

“At midnight, we do a count down — one person is designated to toll a bell 12 times. At the twelfth stroke, we begin to ring all the bells. Everybody has an opportunity to ring. We just keep going. If I’m ringing, I go off and give someone else a turn.”

The midnight concert usually lasts about half an hour, and the best place to listen is said to be the Bishop’s Garden on the south side of the Cathedral. Saturday at 1:15 p.m., following the cathedral’s carillon recital, a band of seasoned ringers will return for the New Year’s Day quarter peal.

• • •

What does it take to be a good ringer?

“It takes huge determination,” Mrs. Clark says.

First you have to get a feel for pulling the ropes. Then you have to learn to work with the other ringers. Then you have to memorize complex ringing patterns, or methods.

“We usually start people on the middle bells — they’re more forgiving,” says Mrs. Clark. “On light bells, you tend to over-correct.”

Jim Snyder, a physician from Clifton Forge, Va., started ringing at a church in Philadelphia. “I’ve been doing it for four years, and I’m still a beginner,” he says. “It’s amazingly demanding.”

John McKendrew, a retired systems engineer from Silver Spring, started five years ago, when he was 71.

“The older you get, the more challenging it is — your nerve endings aren’t as sensitive,” he says. “But it’s good exercise for the upper body, and a good mental challenge. It keeps me active.”

Another advantage, says Mrs. Clark, is that ringing gains you entree into a transatlantic fraternity.

“You can go anywhere,” she says. “One summer I showed up at St. Martin’s in the Fields in Trafalgar Square in London, and they needed one more ringer. Then they put me on a train for another church that needed a ringer, and after that someone drove me to another church. I ended up ringing in three churches that day.”

• • •

Just about every parish church in England, even in remote villages, has a bell tower. In the United States and Canada there are only 40-some towers, and about 500 members of the North American Guild of Change Ringers (with which the Washington Ringing Society is affiliated).

The Greater Washington area has four towers: the Cathedral, the Old Post Office, Calvary Methodist Church in Frederick, and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Princess Anne, Md. There are no bell towers in the United States west of Texas.

Change ringing began in 17th century England, when the full wheel that enabled ringers to control the bells was developed. In 1668, the basic rules still followed today were published in “Tintinnalogia, or the Art of Change Ringing,” by Fabian Stedman.

The British brought the art to the American colonies, installing bells in Boston, Charleston, New York and Philadelphia. Paul Revere was a ringer at Boston’s Old North Church, where he arranged for one lantern or two to be hung in the tower as a signal for the midnight ride (“One if by land, Two if by sea, And I on the opposite shore will be ?”) celebrated in Longfellow’s poem.

After the Revolution, change ringing, like other things British, fell out of favor, and it is only relatively recently enjoying a revival, which Washington Cathedral’s 10-bell ring, installed in 1964, helped spark.

The cathedral’s bells are the heaviest ring of bells in North America. In 1983, 10 bells donated by Great Britain’s Ditchley Foundation to Congress to mark the bicentennial were installed in the Old Post Office clock tower. These bells are replicas of those in London’s Westminster Abbey.

In the cathedral’s central tower, rehearsal is winding down. Tea and cookies are being stowed away, and a delegation is sent up to the belfry to “close” the bells by securing the stays that hold the clappers in place, silencing the bells.

Then, in the room below, some of the ringers gently rock the bells with the ropes so the mouths face down, a safety precaution. The rope endings are knotted in a special way to indicate that the bells are mouth-down.

“Check Number Three,” says Paula Fleming. “It’s got an ‘up’ knot.”

As the more experienced ringers check the knots and put everything in order for the next time, neophyte John Gillanders of Fairfax, who in real life is a documentary filmmaker, talks about how he got hooked on change ringing.

“The first time I held the rope, it dragged me up about three inches. I was drenched in sweat. I love it … I came to the open house they have once a year. I just wanted to see the view. Then I saw the bells and thought, ‘This is the coolest thing.’ ”

Seasoned ringer Mary Clark also thinks the joys of change ringing are worth all the work and pain required.

“I love the teamwork,” she says. “Change ringing offers the opportunity to be part of the music that is being created as we ring the bells.

“When a group of ringers is attempting a peal, this means that every single second for three and a half hours straight must be devoted to rhythmic accuracy and ringing each change in the pattern correctly, even when one’s legs and feet are tired and when blisters develop on the hands and often break in the process, when one would love to have a sip of water, a bite to eat, a mental respite.

“At the same time, it is exhilarating in a way that can only be experienced by those who do it. And in the process, we are hopefully creating a beautiful sound that those on the ground can enjoy and that will cause their inner beings to soar.”

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