For centuries they have marked the significant moments in the story of our nation and the lives of its inhabitants. They have celebrated coronations and marked the deaths of monarchs; they have sounded the thrilling note of victory and warned of danger from flood, storm or foreign invasion. Their ringing at the conclusion of a marriage service is the most joyous and public of statements announcing the union between two newly-weds, while that slow, solemn cadence drifting from the church tower, each long note followed by its half-muffled echo, instinctively commands in the listener respect for and reflection upon a life that has ended.

Bell-ringing is the most English of sounds. While many nations hang bells in the towers of their churches and religious foundations to call the faithful to prayer, it was in England that the ringing of bells “full circle” with rope and wheel was invented and then elevated to an art form. Only in these islands – and a handful of other places in the English-speaking world where bell-ringing was exported by empire – can you hear practised the art of “change-ringing”, the ringing of bells in fiendishly complex mathematical patterns in which no sequence of changes is repeated.

Whether it is the six bells of a country church ringing out on Christmas morning over the snow-bound fields and rooftops, or the tapestry of sound which clatters off the ancient walls of the cathedral close as the dancing trebles trip and weave among their deep-noted brothers, the ringing of bells is the authentic soundtrack of our nation.

It is also just about the loudest sustained noise that you can make in a public place without getting yourself locked up and this, in an age when history and tradition are constantly forced to bow at the altar of individual rights, can cause its own problems for bells and bell-ringers.

One might have thought that the ringing of a peal on the eight bells of St Peter & St Paul’s church at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, where Benjamin Britten lies buried, would have been an entirely appropriate statement with which to mark the opening of last summer’s internationally famous Aldeburgh Festival, but not so for some 20 local residents who raised a petition against the sound of the bells. The vicar, the Rev’d Nigel Hartley, responded in a robust manner and the resulting furore got as far as The Times and the BBC’s Today programme. However, a survey by one local newspaper indicated that the complainants were in a small minority and that some 90 per cent of the inhabitants of Aldeburgh supported the bells.

Complaints do occur from time to time,” admits Philip Gorrod, chairman of the Suffolk Guild of Ringers. “We also get a lot of compliments about ringing, but the supporters generally tend to be less vociferous. In general, though, we like to get on with people, and as a church-based body, it would not be proper for us to be confrontational.”

Confrontational or not, it was explained to the more tetchy residents of Aldeburgh that the bells had been there rather longer than they had. About 500 years longer, according to Hartley, who added rather pointedly that as well as calling the faithful to worship, the bells also reminded the less faithful of their heritage. Perhaps a more obvious comment to make is that if you don’t like the sound of bells, don’t buy a house next to a church. While the church building undoubtedly makes an attractive backdrop to the highly desirable “Church Cottage” or “Steeple End”, the visual complement which it offers to its much-sought-after adjoining properties does not constitute the entire package. Churches – living ones at least – should be heard as well as seen. When, for 17 years, I lived next to a church and opposite a village pub, I made it my business to complain neither about the ringing of bells nor the carousing of revellers at closing time on a Saturday night, but then as both a bell-ringer and a beer drinker I am probably biased.

While in Aldeburgh’s case Suffolk Coastal District Council did not pursue the complaint, a local authority, if it sees fit to do so, may investigate and take steps to deal with a noise that it regards as a nuisance under that catch-all charter for busybodies, the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It is therefore sensible for bell-ringers and church authorities to take complaints seriously.

Some towers are very noisy,” Gorrod concedes, “but we try to avoid ringing at antisocial times of the day, though we might make an exception on Christmas Eve, Easter Day or Ascension Day. I also know of one tower which rings at 7am for HM The Queen’s birthday.”

Where the sound of the bells is seriously intrusive or where there is a particularly active band of resident ringers, then mechanical methods of sound control may be introduced. For example, some of the louvres in the tower may be blocked to impede the sound, or the louvres may be angled to throw the sound out in a different direction. However, while sound control might be a good idea on practice nights or to relieve weary residents during the umpteenth peal attempt, it is pretty pointless ringing the bells for a public performance such as a wedding – or even a call to the 9.30 communion service – if they cannot be heard.

A slightly more complex situation is one where the bells have been silent for a long time and are then restored to full working order, as at my small parish church at Chediston in north-east Suffolk. Bells have an extraordinarily long life. Some which are in regular use today date from the 14th century. In fact, it is hard to think of any other musical activity in which the instrument one plays is potentially of so great an age. A bell’s fittings, on the other hand, deteriorate over the years and while a bell frame may last for two or three centuries, the bells themselves probably need rehanging once every hundred years or so.

Technology changes with bells and bell fittings as with everything else. Although the concept of the wheel and headstock, which enables a bell hung in the English manner to rotate back and forth, has not changed since Charles II was on the throne, today bells are hung on modern ball bearings in steel frames, enabling them to be adjusted with precision to ensure that they swing true and sweetly. Recently hung bells are much easier to ring, which makes life more comfortable for the bell-ringers and neighbours alike, for even non-ringers can tell when the bells are being rung well – or badly.

The oldest of the six bells in my parish church dates back to 1640, but the frame and fittings had deteriorated to the extent that the bells were declared derelict. After all, the stresses and strains created when several tons of metal are being swung around with gay abandon 60ft in the air are huge, and the risk of damage to the bells, tower, ringers or all three had the bells been rung would have been considerable. Because no incumbent wished to see broken bells or dead ringers, for the past 30 years the bells have remained silent.

This is shortly to change, thanks to an incredible fund-raising effort by a tiny rural community plus the welcome intervention of the Heritage Lottery Fund, and in a few weeks the bells will ring out once more. In doing so, I believe that they will breathe new life into a village that has lost its shop, post office, school, pub and indeed virtually everything bar its church. Bell-ringing may not be able to make up for, say, the loss of a pub, but it will restore at least one social activity to the village, an activity that bridges all social divisions, is open to all ages and in which the farm worker can participate on equal terms with the professional. One of the best tower captains I can recall was the son of a horseman who left school at 15 to work on the land. Harry may have been hopeless at his arithmetic in the classroom, but once in the ringing chamber he was able to master faultlessly the complex numerical sequences that enabled him and the other members – largely other farm workers and village tradesmen – to make those eight bells sing.

And although, as Gorrod points out, it is a church-based activity, bell-ringing still manages to combine religious duty with a more worldly exercise that is both physically active and mentally stimulating. Until the 16th century, bells were simply swung back and forth, the speed at which they could be rung being governed solely by their momentum. Then somebody had the bright idea of fixing them to a wheel which allowed them to be rotated through a full 360 degrees. This enabled the ringer to pause his bell by balancing it in the inverted position between strokes, thus making it possible for the order in which the bells were struck to be changed in a predictable and pre-ordained sequence. It is this constantly changing pattern that is at the heart of English bell-ringing and makes it so distinctive and musical to listen to.

The art of change ringing spread rapidly during the 17th century; so rapidly, in fact, that the church authorities of the time became suspicious that the ringers were engaging in an ungodly intellectual hobby within the church building. Serious ructions between ringers and incumbents, even tower lockouts, were not unknown.

One hopes those days of rifts are gone and today the Church smiles kindly upon the bell-ringing fraternity. Indeed, the more perceptive among its leaders recognise that the sound of bells is one of the most public means by which the Church of England can demonstrate that it is still fulfilling its mission. I for one am greatly looking forward to the rededication of Chediston’s bells and to hearing them ring out once more over the Suffolk countryside after a 30-year gap, for they will be a sign that a small country parish, though devoid of any community services, has not died entirely.

The church already has one wedding booked for next summer and, after all, what would a wedding, or indeed Christmas Day, be without church bells?


Bell-ringing The term which bell-ringers use to describe their art.

Campanology The term which non-ringers use to describe bell-ringing.

Peal A continuous sequence of more than 5,000 changes, which takes about three hours to ring.

Extent The maximum number of changes that may be rung on a given number of bells without repetition. On six bells (720 changes) it takes about 35 minutes to ring, while on 12 bells (479,001,600 changes) theoretically it would take 27 years.

Oldest bell for change-ringing Thought to be the fifth bell at St Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury, Kent. It was cast in about 1325 by William le Belyetere, a local bell-founder.

Heaviest bell for change-ringing The tenor at Liverpool cathedral weighs just over four tons.

Big Ben Possibly Britain’s most famous bell. It was cast on 10 April, 1858 and weighs more than 13 tons.

For information on bell-ringing visit the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers’ website.