Church bells are often used in time of celebration or crisis. Only a few weeks after the Britons celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee the nation received the announcement that the monarch had died. In the town of Otley where the Parish Church where the historic bells had been recently restored, they would peal at the onset of a period of mourning. As with tradition when a monarch dies the bell strikers or clappers as they are known are muted. All were muffled except for the tenor bell being “half muffled”. The tenor bell is the largest bell and sounds the lowest note of the ring of eight bells.
Each bell is numbered and represents a note on a musical scale in the major key. Number 1 being the highest note of the scale going down to number 8 being an octave lower (the tenor bell). A manufacturer’s certificate shows the precise musical notes, their frequencies and weight of each bell is displayed in the bell ringing chamber in the church belfry.
Peals comprise of the bells being played in a strict order, with pairs of bells sapping places in the order in which they are being played. The simplest methods comprise of just four bells which can be rung in a maximum of 24 different combinations generally starting with 1, 2, 3 and 4 (lightest bell to heaviest bell). The ringing order can then be changed with bells that were ringing next to each other swapping places to give a new ringing order and so on until an extent (all 24 different ringing combinations) has been reached. This would take less than 2 minutes. However, if you are ringing more bells say 5 the possible unique ringing order becomes 120. This would take 5-6 minutes to ring. Otley has eight bells giving a total of 40,320 different ringing orders. This would take roughly 24 hours to ring. Cathedrals often have 12 or more bells! Bell ringers use terms differently to the norm and to them a peal would be ringing 5,040 different combinations or striking orders. This is the possible number of unique striking orders for 7 bells (1x2x3x4x5x6x7=5,040).
This process of swapping the order of the pairs of bells is known as “Change Ringing” or “Ringing the Changes”.
There are wooden boards that showing when special peals were performed with the names of the bell ringers carrying out this formidable physical feat. Particularly for the whoever is playing the heavy tenor bell.
Local man, Jasper W Snowden, from Ilkley was influential performer and conductor known throughout the district for regularly being involved in Change Ringing Association events.
In 1881 J W Snowden is conducting in Lindley and Ilkley All Saints Parish Church (See the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, Archives of Church Bells Pages 27 & 63).
in 1875 J W Snowden reported to have rung his third peal of the week in Ilkley with tenor bells weighing 18cwt which would close to a metric ton (see the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers Archives of Church Bells page 616).
Ringing up the bells at start allow the bells to be supported upside down by wooden Stays that prevent the bell spinning 360 degrees and ropes being wrapped around the bearings. At the start position the bell is upside down with the clapper resting again the side of the bell, not quite perpendicular (Demonstrated in the photograph with the model of the bell below).
Bells are measured in old fashion imperial weights, with the bell number six, being over 417Kg (seen in the photograph below). The relationship between weights, diameter and pitch is complex. The manufacturing has been refined over time and requires great skill. To sound a pitch just two notes lower require the tenor bell to weigh over 825Kg. Bells are cast, with precise frequencies being achieved by turning with cutting tool with constant measurement of the resulting pitch change.
Queen Elizabeth is dead, and the period of mourning begins
The muffled bells pealed started from 11 o’clock the next morning, 9th September 2022. Muffled church bells sound strange, mysterious, and even eerie at times being heard perhaps only once in a lifetime. Thanks to Andy Newell, the Steeple Keeper of the Parish Church belfry I was once again able to capture the sound of this unique event.