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Jan 16, 2009

The age-old art of “change ringing” is being kept alive by the ringers of Washington’s National Cathedral.

By Donna Sapolin

Among the many rehearsals for the inauguration of the 44th president, none could be more deliberate than those of a small society of volunteers who play the great bells at Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral. One of only 45 working bell towers in the U.S., the National Cathedral has ten heavy bells, making it the largest belfry in the country.
At the bells of Washington’s Old Post Office Pavilion on Inauguration Day and in the cathedral bell tower following the traditional prayer service held the next day, the 45 members of the Washington Ringing Society can be counted on to make an appropriately joyful noise.

Members of the Washington Ringing Society talk about their group, their bells and their passion for ringing in FLYP Media’s short documentary. Watch it here.

Practitioners of an art developed by 17th-century English composers, the cathedral’s ringing society is nothing if not an anachronism. They play no hymns or melodies. Instead, they practice what is called “methods,” which consists of numbers arranged in rows, each number a bell, each row a change from the one before. Thus, it is labeled “change ringing.”

Small details of change ringing play out on a grand scale, as seen in FLYP’s photo essay.

Six bells can produce 720 changes, and 7 bells 5,040, which is called a full peal. Reserved only for New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July ringing sessions, a full peal lasts three hours and twenty-five minutes. Even a quarter peal of 1,260 changes—the Washington Ringing Society’s usual form—takes 45 minutes.
The work is demanding. Each bell—fashioned from bell metal, an alloy of copper and tin—weighs between 600 and 3,500 pounds. A pull on one of the long ropes dangling from the belfry must draw a large wooden wheel—and with it the bell—through a full 360-degree rotation.
Such efforts forge a bond. The members of the Washington Ringing Society often socialize after their thrice-weekly rehearsals and their Sunday performances. Some of them even take their act on the road in domestic and foreign exchanges organized by the North American Guild of Change Ringers and individual tower groups.
Harriet Morgan, a Washington ringer who learned the practice 20 years ago while studying at Oxford University, says that “change ringing is fun. There aren’t many activities that combine the intellectual challenge of figuring it out and the physical challenge of doing it right, along with a wonderful cooperative team effort.”

Visit America’s top towers across the country, and listen to the unique sounds of their bells in FLYP’s interactive graphic, which is accompanied by a detailed interactive feature on the different parts of a bell and how they contribute to making the bell “ring.”


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