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Ring in the new;Millennium celebrations;Features and arts

The pealing of church bells will help us welcome the new millennium. Valerie Hall explains how - and why.

What sounds will herald the 21st century? Popping champagne corks, the bangs, crackles and whistles of fireworks, the drunken singing of Auld Lang Syne, certainly, but transcending all this will be the joyous clamour of church bells reverberating around the country.

"Bells are the sound of the millennium," says Jane Wilkinson, former president of the Central Council of Church Bellringers, "because they have an explicit spiritual dimension and are part of our national heritage. The ringing will signify a national pulling together to face the challenges of the next millennium."

At noon on January 1, the nation will emerge from its collective hangover to the sound of bells ringing in almost every village, town and city in the land. Many bellringing bands will content themselves with a quarter peal lasting 45 minutes, but some will go the whole hog with a full peal, which usually lasts three hours.

Some can go on for nine hours, as did the New Year's peal of Kent Treble Bob Major (a method for eight bells, see box), rung by Lord Peter Wimsey and the villagers of Fenchurch Saint Paul in Dorothy L Sayers's 1934 whodunit, The Nine Tailors. (Let's hope that no millennium peal ends up, as the peal in Sayers's tale does, with the discovery of a dead body in the belfry.) In The Nine Tailors, Sayers explains that bellringing "is peculiar to the English... To the musical Belgian... it appears that the proper thing to do with a carefully tuned ring of bells is to play a tune upon it. By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations." So for, say, eight bells, there are 40,320 potential changes; a three-hour peal incorporates 5,040 changes.

People of all ages enjoy bellringing, including many students. The younger you are the easier it is to learn, as I should know. Soon after I moved to a Northamptonshire village aged 12, local bellringers asked my younger sister and me if we'd be interested in learning to ring. Despite our obvious lack of enthusiasm, they invited us to their practice evening, and that was it. We were hooked.

First, we clambered up the spiral staircase to the belfry to see the bells in their chiming positions.

Frank, the ringing master and a primary headteacher, explained the mechanics. Bells rest lip up (upside down). A rope around a wheel linked to the bell allows the ringer to pull it from this balance point and to swing it through 360 degrees to its original position and back again.

A narrow piece of wood - the stay - stops the bell moving beyond the balance point. We received many dire warnings about the consequences of "breaking the stay". If we did, it was imperative to let go of the rope immediately, as novice ringers had been known to fly up, hit the ceiling and freefall back to the ground.

Like "Batty Thomas" and "Tailor Paul" in The Nine Tailors, many bells are inscribed with their names. Saints' names are particularly popular. The bells can weigh anything from 50kg to just over 4 tonnes, like Liverpool Cathedral's heaviest. The lightest bell in a tower is called the treble and the heaviest the tenor. With the correct technique, small people can control heavy bells, but two men are needed to ring a peal on an exceptionally heavy bell.

Bellringing is an enjoyable and social activity. Ringers like to go "tower grabbing", gaining experience on a variety of bells. If you are used to ringing changes on six bells, doing so on eight or 10 is a challenge. After Sunday service, my sister and I would go to fellow ringers' houses for coffee, biscuits and handbellringing to practise methods (prescribed sets of changes) and tunes. At Christmas, we went carol handbellringing around local villages.

These days, Frank runs a village post office in Wiltshire and only occasionally pulls a bellrope, but nothing will stop him turning out to ring in 2000.

Another of our co-ringers, Stephen Bell, now head of mechanical engineering at Northumbria University, is the ringing master at St Nicholas's Cathedral, Newcastle upon Tyne, where a new bell has been cast especially for the millennium. "It will be rung for the first time at noon on January 1," he says, "and will ring its first peal, Plain Bob Royal (a method for 10 bells), on January 2."

As for me, many years have gone by since I laid hand on bellrope, but you can be sure that as this century ends and another one begins, I will be listening out for the sound of church bells ding-donging merrily on high.

To learn more about bellringing, contact the vicar of your nearest church which has bells. Most bellringers belong to a diocesan or university guild which put on regular courses. A list of guilds can be found at: www.qsoft.u-net.comguild1.htm For a free training directory send an A5 SAE to: B Wheeler, 18 Bankside, Morpeth, Northumberland NE61 1XD. The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers education committee contact is Michael Henshaw, tel: 01482 656270. 'The Ringing World' magazine subscription details: Tina Stoecklin, tel: 01483 569535; e-mail:'The Nine Tailors' by Dorothy L Sayers is published by New English Library, pound;5.99

* My sister and I were taught bell handling as it has been taught for centuries. Having first muffled the clapper, Frank showed us how to "bring the bells up" by pulling on the sally (the furry bit) and gradually increasing the momentum until the bell swings through 360 degrees.

The ringing action has two strokes: grabbing the sally to pull the bell off the stay (the handstroke), steadily letting the rope go up until your arms are at full stretch above your head (the backstroke), then pulling down again and catching the sally. Frank pulled with us until we could safely go solo several weeks later. We also learned how to "bring the bells down" (the reverse process to bringing them up).

The next stage is ringing rounds - 12345678 assuming eight bells in the tower, or as Dorothy L Sayers puts it: "tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo" - followed by Plain Hunt (changing the bell's position one place at a time from front to back and back to front, striking two blows at front and back).

Then comes progression to simple methods (prescribed sets of changes) such as Plain Bob, Saint Clements, Double Oxford, and Hereward.

Novice ringers follow what's known as "the blue line", which is their own passage through the method; experienced ringers can see where all the bells should be at any given point and are capable of calling and conducting a quarter peal or peal. If anyone "gets lost" and starts clashing with other bells, the conductor can put them on the right track again.

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