Don’t look down on bell ringers this Christmas


A blog by account director Ed Baker…

The distinctive sound of church bells is part of the traditional Christmas experience in England, along with tasteless turkey, gaudy baubles and the monarch’s monologue.

For the country’s 40,000 campanologists it is one of the busiest times of the year, and they practise their art hidden away in churches’ bell towers.

Theirs is the most widely heard musical instrument in the land and yet they go unrecognised – even by some of the congregations in whose churches they ring.

The art of ‘change bell ringing’ has been developing since the early 17th century and our nation’s love of it prompted the composer Handel to describe England as ‘The Ringing Isle’.

Few, however, understand the difficulties campanologists go through when they ring their secular instruments that just happen to be contained within religious buildings.

I was one of the ignorant until, as a journalist working for the national papers, I happened upon a story that opened my eyes to the pressures of the peal.

Sourcing stories to write and then sell led me to many interesting places, one of which was the pages of The Ringing World – the bible for those who practise The Exercise, as bell ringing is known.

The magazine lists all the peals that tower bands complete (almost all in England), as well as providing news and comment about the art, which, historically, is also described as a science.

Perusing the pages of the august organ some years ago I spotted in the letters’ section correspondence from a ringer who had abandoned her much-loved hobby because of what she described as ‘ringing vertigo’.

In the next edition of the historic publication more ringers’ letters were published which detailed their difficulties with the same condition. And so it continued, week after week. One letter prompted dozens of sufferers to come forward.

Their symptoms included light-headedness, dizziness, breathlessness, nausea, claustrophobia and stage fright-style nervousness – all similar to symptoms of vertigo.

Specific causes of the condition seemed to vary with the sufferer, but it had led to many ringers giving up their recreational pastime for good.

To understand the reasons for this condition one has to look at what ringing actually entails.

Bells hanging in church towers can weigh several tons and are rotated through 360 degrees when the rope is pulled.

This system enables campanologists to ring a predefined sequence of ‘changes’ or permutations – usually on a ‘ring’ of six or more bells. This mathematical process developed because ringing melodies was impossible.

A peal – the gold standard of ringing – is a non-stop sequence of a minimum of 5,000 changes – or 30,000 individual ‘bongs’. And it takes about three hours to complete a peal.

So there is huge pressure on band members to pull their sally at the right time. One wrong ‘bong’ results in a ‘false peal’ and this cannot be recorded in The Ringing World or engraved on a tower’s peal board.

And if the errant pull happens towards the end of the attempted peal, the hours of effort and concentration that preceded it are wasted.

Added to that mental pressure is the physical exertion required to pull a heavy bell for three hours. Furthermore, ringers have to deal with heavy vibrations and the slow swaying of the tower.

Also, ringing chambers are often small, enclosed spaces accessed by extremely narrow, winding staircases and those with a predisposition to claustrophobia could well find the ordeal of ringing too great.

All these mental and physical pressures combined can lead to campanologists – or, if you must, tintinnabulators – suffering from ringing vertigo to various degrees of severity.

I duly penned a story on this new medical condition I had read about and it was run prominently in several newspapers including the Times and the Guardian – followed up by TV and radio, both here and abroad.

Indeed, such was the reach of this newly identified phenomenon that the British Medical Journal recorded its surfacing, and learned medical practitioners discussed the hitherto unknown condition and speculated as to its causes.

So this Christmas, when you hear church bells ringing, spare a thought for the ringers, some of whom are genuinely suffering for their science.