About Bell Ringing


History and Operation

Bells have been around for 1000s of years but are generally hung with their mouths facing downwards and are then struck by either an external hammer or swung such that an internal clapper hits them. English ringing varies significantly from this, and involves swinging the bell through a full circle such that the clapper hits the bell when its mouth is facing upwards. This places much greater loads on the bell tower but has two significant advantages: the sound is projected outwards and the exact strike time can be controlled. This allows multiple bells to sound their notes in different sequences as the order of the bells change (change ringing). This innovation developed from the 15th century and provides a huge variety of possible sequences (40,320 taking over 24 hours to complete on the 8 bells in the tower).

Each bell’s position in this sequence is known by ringers as the bell’s place i.e. the first, second, third etc. to strike and when ringing rounds with the bells ring in order of their weights (notes) 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Each bell remains in this position within the sequence and is simply rung at a steady speed.  In order to create a more interesting sound we vary the sequence of bell notes by each ringer either slowing or accelerating their bell to move backwards or forwards within the sequence. All of the ringers need to coordinate these changes of speed and position by following pre agreed patterns known as methods which are committed to the ringer’s memory. The quality of the resulting ringing is therefore dependent on all of the ringers acting as a team to vary and position their bells correctly relative to each other. 

Many ringers never aspire to ring every possible sequence, but some do. The term ‘peal’ is used to describe ringing all 5040 changes on 7 bells, or over 5000 different changes on 8 bells, taking about 3.25 hours. More normally, however, the bells will be rung for much shorter periods with many methods taking less than 10 minutes to complete.

The Great Missenden Bells

At Great Missenden the bells are rung from the ground floor so the congregation and visitors can see the ringers in action. There are no records of when bells were first placed in the tower but our oldest was cast in 1603. The tower itself was first built in mediaeval times and assumed its present unusual rectangular shape in the 18th Century when the previous square tower was extended to the south and upwards using much recycled building material which may have come from the Abbey, including part of a large 13th Century window on the West side. Bells were added over the years and a restoration in the early 20th century featured a new timber frame but retained the old beams which supported it from the walls. It was the deterioration of these timber foundation beams which led to the major restoration in 1990 which included a new steel frame and the addition of two new bells.

With the lightest bell weighing 320kg and the heaviest 1224kg (a little more than a Ford Fiesta) you might think enormous strength would be required but because of the way the bell swings through the full circle stopping at each end like an oversized pendulum the ringer only needs modest strength to overcome frictional losses and a little more when changing the bell’s speed. 

The ringer controls the bell with a rope the skill being to keep this rope tight to avoid it snaking dangerously about and develop a feel for the bell’s movement and the amount of pull required.  This skill is usually taught on a 1-2-1 basis until the ringer has gained the skill and confidence to safely join the rest of the team.  Rather than repeat information which can be readily found elsewhere readers are invited to refer to the Oxford Diocesan Guild website Chiltern Branch pages which include much detailed information about learning to ring.  http://chiltern.odg.org.uk/Training/index.html

The details of our bells are as below:

Name Weight Weight Date
Treble 320kg 6.3 cwt 1990
No. 2 361kg 7.1 cwt 1990
No. 3 320kg 6.3 cwt 1692
No. 4 457kg 9.0 cwt 1603
No. 5 610kg 12.0 cwt 1640
No. 6 670kg 13.2 cwt 1824
No. 7 1072kg 21.1 cwt 1623
Tenor 1224kg 24.1 cwt 1840

Total Weight: 5 tonnes 34 kg

A point of interest is that the treble and the third bells are of the same weight, yet they sound very different. This is achieved at the time of tuning, a process taken following casting. The older bells can be, and indeed were, re-tuned when the bells were restored.

The bells are hung on one level in a metal frame, which was installed in 1990 to replace an older wooden one. The ring was augmented with the Treble and Second at the same time.