Ring All The Changes


I’ve taken the Jeopardy test several times, and since I’ve never studied before taking it, I’ve never been chosen to audition for the show. I do watch it regularly and sometimes the most entertaining part is when the hosts do the “get to know you” segment.

From what I understand, the contestants are interviewed ahead of time so the hosts can ask them about interesting or funny stories. I’m always amazed when a contestant has virtually nothing interesting to say about their own life. I, however, am prepared for my future one day stint on the show. See, I used to be a change ringer.

When you hear or read the phrase “bell ringer” you may think about Quasimodo in the tower, or British TV shows where the vicar rings the bell to announce that the church service is about to start. But change ringing is more complicated than ringing one small bell.

Change ringing uses “rings” containing multiple bells which are then hand rung in either planned and memorized sets of changes, or in spontaneous changes shouted to the ringers by a conductor. Because of the bells’ weight (several hundred to several thousand pounds) and the time needed to rotate them to ring them, you can’t play melodies.

But you can play music because the bells are tuned and the music is produced by the ringers ringing specific patterns called “methods” where the group of ringers will start by ringing rounds—all the bells ringing in order from heaviest (lowest tone) to lightest (highest tone)—followed by the conductor calling the method and everyone beginning the process of ringing in different orders as they go, having memorized the method first (yes, it’s a hobby with homework).

If you aren’t familiar with any of this, here’s a short video about the Washington Ringing Society, the group I used to ring with. DC is one of the few US cities to have a ring, and it’s one of the even fewer US cities that has 2 rings:  one at Washington National Cathedral and one at the Old Post Office.

What the video doesn’t discuss is the danger present. An out of control bell can take you airborne and injuries are possible:

Dr. A.C. Lamont, a pediatric radiologist, and Dr. N.J.M. London of the Leicester Royal Infirmary surveyed injuries among church bell ringers. There are about 40,000 in England, and they ring bells from 3,000 towers each Sunday, at Easter and on Christmas.

For the article, which appeared Saturday, the doctors reviewed the last six years of Ringing World magazine, looking for articles on injuries and accidents. They advertised in the trade magazine for ringers who had suffered mishaps, and sent questionnaires to 20 active bell towers, bringing a response from 221 ringers.

The injuries identified included torn fingernails, fractures, bruises, corneal abrasions, rope burns, extracted teeth, lacerations, accidental near hangings, pulled muscles, ruptured ligaments and heads caught in rope loops.

Five deaths were counted.

The doctors’ survey indicated that about 724 injuries befall ringers in the British Isles each year, half of which require first aid or other medical attention.


Novices commonly fall prey to the most notorious hazard of bell ringing: the “high speed lift.” This occurs, the doctors wrote, when the bell’s stay breaks, the bell goes out of balance and the ringer who forgets to release the rope is whisked toward the ceiling at a speed approaching 55 mph.

And that is real–it happened one Sunday at National Cathedral too, when a visiting ringer not used to the heavy bells broke a stay and went airborne. Imagine what rebranding it as an extreme sport could do for change ringing’s profile.

The thing about change ringing is that it’s either something you get immediately or you don’t, both as participants and as spectators. For me, learning to ring a bell was like doing yoga—when you’re doing it right, you can feel it. In yoga you can feel it in the alignment of your body and in ringing you can feel it in the rope, how it coils when you pull the bell downward, and in your hands and arms as you feel the tension in the rope and the resistance and swing of the bell itself. It’s pretty cool. Should you get a chance to visit a ringing chamber whether you enjoy watching it will depend on how interested you are in patterns, sound, and watching the teamwork on the ringing platform.

There’s a lot more I could talk about.  If you have any questions after reading my quick overview, please feel free to ask them and if there’s interest I’ll write more about.

My title comes from a Bryan Ferry song “Rock of Ages” which has the lyrics “Ring the changes/Ring all changes” which refers to ringing every possible iteration of a method (over 5000 rounds), which is called a “full peal”, and which rings every change. Here it is:

5 thoughts on “Ring All The Changes

  1. Greatly enjoyed tgis. One of my favorite British whodunits is the Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers, written in early 1930s.

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