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No bats in this Hill church belfry; just great music

by Janet Gilmore

“Bells are like cats and mirrors – they’re always queer, and it doesn’t do to think too much about them.”

- Dorothy L. Sayers in “The Nine Tailors”

“Winston is a campanologist,” his wife, Wendy, mentioned at a recent party we attended.

“Oh, you mean carillons?” I asked, trying to use a big, appropriate word and show intelligence.

“No, no. We don’t say that word. He’s a ‘Change Ringer.’”

“What’s that?”

“He rings bells up in a bell tower. They don’t play songs.”

This was interesting. In fact, my mouth dropped open and probably stayed that way for a while because I never had so many questions in my life, and I couldn’t decide which one to ask first.

Not one to avoid the obvious, I managed to ask, “Big bells? In a real belfry? Aren’t they loud?”

Winston Moody smiled. He is a handsome, nice man who lives in East Falls, and I could see him deciding whether to talk to me seriously or not.

The questions: “How many bells? How old are they? How big is the biggest one? Couldn’t it fall on you? Did you ever have termites in the belfry? What is the rope made of? Are the bells tuned to musical notes? How do you practice? Are your palms all calloused? Do you need big muscles? Do you wear long robes? If you don’t play songs, what do you play? Could you play ‘Happy Birthday’ to someone on the bells if you wanted? Why not? If a bell does fall and you’re trapped underneath, can you still get cell phone reception?”

Winston answered my questions in his polite, calm manner, then asked me if I had ever read “The Nine Tailors,” a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers. The plot has much to do with Change Ringing in an English village church. As a matter of fact, I had read it and loved it, though long ago. I’d forgotten much of the plot, but remembered the scenes in the belfry were quite scary.

“Yes I have read it,” I said.

“You probably remember that the bell ringers were Change Ringers … We are volunteers who practice weekly (6:45 – 8:30 p.m.) at St. Martin-in-the Field in Chestnut Hill and St. Mark’s in center city on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. Our ringers come from Philadelphia, surrounding counties, New Jersey and Delaware. We have both male and female ringers from many religious backgrounds. We do Sunday service ringing at both churches every week as well. We also ring in New Castle, DE, once a month and occasionally travel to D.C., New York Boston and other cities to ring. We ring for weddings in both churches. Would you like to watch us practice?”

You bet I would.

And so, the following Wednesday, after asking my family to go outside at 8 p.m. and listen for the bells, I drove to church. Winston met me outside the bell tower, and we climbed the steep spiral staircase to the belfry, where we left the modern age behind for the next few hours.

The ringing chamber in the bell tower at St. Martin in the Fields is a squarish room with electricity, heat and chairs, and no bats. Eight metal-cuffed holes go through the ceiling of the ringing chamber to the belfry above in which the bells hang. The ceiling is soundproofed, so no one goes insane or starts bleeding from the ears because of the sound.

Change ringing is a team activity — there are no individual medals in this event — not the kind of activity in which you can take a bell home to practice over the weekend and bring it back on Monday. The thing requires first a church, then a belfry, then bells and ringers who know what they’re doing.

A rookie ringer was practicing when I arrived. I couldn’t tell if he was good or bad. The sound was loud but survivable. How would all eight bells rung together sound?

I met Bruce Butler, the Ringing Master. He’s English, and Change Ringing is obviously his passion. Bruce began a series of complicated explanations, the most astonishing of which was that the bells begin upside-down in the belfry, and the clapper strikes them on their way through a 360-degree swing. I looked up, but because of the ceiling, I couldn’t see the eight giant upside-down bells hovering overhead, waiting to fall, but I knew they were there.

As on a ship, things related to the bells are called by different names that only insiders would know. A “hunt” is not a hunt. A “method” is a method, but “Sally” is no longer a girl’s name. “Stedman” is not Oprah’s boyfriend. I believe a kiss is still a kiss, and a sigh is still a sigh, but who knows?

The bells are tuned to a musical scale of D. They have names. The lightest, Dunstan, weighs 186 pounds, the size of a decent-sized husband. Then, in ascending order of weight, are Lady Julian of Norwich, Margaret of Scotland, Nicholas of Little Gidding, David, Patrick, Augustine and big boy Columba (512 pounds). Bruce let me ring Columba. I pulled the rope once. Too much responsibility for me; I handed the rope back to Bruce.

The amount of information to learn would take the rest of my natural life span, and really, shouldn’t I go outside and get some fresh air once in a while?

When the ringers began their practice in earnest, I was shown to a chair and told NOT to cross my legs because a rogue rope could catch my ankle and whip me up through the ceiling, through the belfry and out the spire from whence I could change suddenly from a living person into an ugly splat on Willow Grove Avenue. Hey, I watch cartoons; I know that could really happen. I stayed well out of the way, believe me.

There is no adjective splendid enough to describe the sound of the bells ringing. The — well, tintinnabulations — made my entire body vibrate. I gave up trying to understand the technical aspects of what was happening around me, and closed my eyes simply to listen. I could have been anywhere, in any century, and I thought about all the births, deaths and celebrations that the bells might have rung over time.

“Would you like to climb up to see the bells?” Winston asked.

“Of course.”

The ladder to the bell chamber was in the corner, with teeny rungs suitable for squirrels, acrobats and other agiles. I was game for the ascent, but the same gent who warned me not to cross my legs, said that the ladder was not in good repair and might not hold my weight — You talkin’ to me, dude? — and I might fall, crash through the floor and plunge a few hundred feet into the earth.

I didn’t get to go up into the bell tower to see the actual bells that night. But I will.

Winston invited me back to watch another practice, and I intend to go. I could bring my own ladder.

The North American Guild of Change Ringers pamphlet promises, “Ringing is within the intellectual and physical reach of anyone who can ride a bicycle.” If you think you have both intellectual and physical reach, call 215-848-5131 or check out their websites at www.nagcr.org and/or www.phillyringers.com.

Posted Jan 30, 2013

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