Why Don't I Hear the Bells?

A hush has fallen on the Washington area’s four change ringing towers as the novel coronavirus continues to disrupt our community. Normally, with less congestion and traffic in our city (as we have during the current stay-at-home order), the toll of a bell would carry easily across D.C. neighborhoods. But not now. Washington National Cathedral, the Old Post Office Tower, Virginia Theological Seminary (Alexandria, VA), and Calvary United Methodist Church (Frederick, MD) have shuttered their towers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

After all, while some bell towers are electronically tolled, the art of change ringing requires a team of ringers to sound the bells – all standing very near each other and ringing on cue. Social distancing just isn’t possible. The Washington Ringing Society, stewards and resident ringers to these towers, have suspended rehearsals and peal attempts until “social nearing” is once again safe and responsible.

The Art of Change Ringing

It takes 10 people pulling heavy ropes from a chamber below (one would assume to protect their hearing) to operate a full set of change ringing bells. One person, one rope. This exhausting work is a form of bell ringing made fashionable in England in the 17th century. It relies on mathematical patterns called “methods,” rather than tuneful melodies, to inform the ringers as to when the rope should next be tugged. It takes roughly two full seconds for a peal bell to ring and be ready to ring again.

Depending on the number of bells employed, the number of permutations (and by extension, the number of sound combinations we hear standing on the ground below) can vary greatly. For instance, a full peal on 10 bells would consist of 5,040 changes, and would take nearly 3.5 hours to complete. As one might deduce, a full peal is only attempted on special occasions. 

Here’s another interesting fact: it would take approximately 123 days, ringing continuously day and night, to toll all the possible mathematical permutations on 10 bells. We can’t imagine the neighbors would be too pleased. Today, there are roughly 50 towers dotting across the U.S. with English change ringing bells and the D.C. area is blessed to have four of these impressive bell towers. 

So, what are the ringers up to these days?

While ringing occasions might be temporarily canceled, that doesn’t mean the bell ringers aren’t keeping busy practicing their craft! Like so many people working from home and keeping in touch with their friends and loved ones, the Washington Ringing Society is turning to technology like Zoom. The ringers meet online weekly to learn and practice ringing methods while leveraging smart phones apps and desktop software to simulate ringing bells.

When will the ringers be back in the bell towers?

There is no set date for the towers to reopen, as the coronavirus threat is continuing to evolve. However, when we’re finally able to set the bells swinging again, you can be sure we’ll let you know – if you don’t hear the bells overhead first!