Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ringing the Changes at Christ Church

On the walkway near the roof of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin on my way to the bell tower. I seem to be holding onto that book bag for dear life. (It was windy.)

One of my favorite mysteries--in fact, one of my favorite books of all time--is The Nine Tailors, by the late Dorothy L. Sayers. Written in 1934, it takes place in and around a medieval church and uses the obscure art of English change ringing (of church bells) as one of the important elements of the story. 

It is a wonderful book: and if you haven't read any Sayers, this is a lovely introduction to her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, the shell-shocked veteran of the Great War and second son of the Duke of Denver. 

This is all leading up to the fact that today, on a tour of the bell tower of Dublin's Christ Church Cathedral, I actually met my first expert in change ringing, who, at least, attempted to explain this unique feature peculiar to English churches.

We definitely got a bird's eye view of  those flying buttresses.

First, we had to get up the eighty-two stairs to the bell ringing room of Christ Church, which has a crypt that dates back to the Normans (eleventh century) with beams down there that hold up the fifteenth century stone building above.

When we got up on this gangway between the two staircases, one in our number had to turn back with that Hitchcock thing--you know ... Vertigo.

This is probably a good time to point out that Christ Church was indeed, originally, a Catholic cathedral--but Henry VIII changed all that when he had his dust up with the Pope.  And what with the English lording it over the Irish all those centuries, Christ Church became an Anglican church and stayed that way.  And that's even though the first Norman ruler of Ireland, Strongbow, is buried in this church, and he was a Roman Catholic. Everything in Ireland is complicated.

But meanwhile, back upstairs in that bell tower, we learn that our guide, who helped me better understand The Nine Tailors, was, coincidentally named Leslie Taylor.  Nine tailors (a corruption of toll-ers) were once rung at the death of a man--followed by one ring for each year he lived. Thus a village learned the news of a neighbor's death.

This Mr. Taylor told our small group he had been ringing changes at Christ Church since he was fourteen.

I noted in a plaque on the wall that he now rings the lead bell, called the treble.

Mr. Taylor, explaining change ringing.

Ringing changes are mathematical formulae based on the number of bells in the tower and the number of combinations each one can be rung in relation to the other bells, without repeating. Six bells have 720 possible "changes" which take six bell ringers about thirty minutes to ring.

On April 11, 2008, Mr. Taylor and his fellow ringers rang a full peal of Plain Bob Major on the Christ Church bells 0f 5056 changes that took them three hours to ring.

While we were trying to absorb that complex calculation he told us that the hand grip on each bell rope, is called a "sally." In this church, the sallies are made of colored velvet.

Mr. Taylor, who is very likely always on the hunt for good bell ringing talent, had us all take a turn at the ropes--telling us each to be very careful not to let the bell pull us to the ceiling! I believe this is known as "an over pull." Clearly, change ringing takes both brawn and brains.  Several in our group were, at least, able to make the bells speak.

And though we weren't yet ready to ring Grandshire Triples or a change of Yorkshire Surprise Major,  nobody ended up pulled to the ceiling and no one fell through the trap door to the choir--so all in all, we did pretty well.

And we all safely got back down the cramped, six-hundred-year-old stone stairs, negotiating them without incident. Thus; no one had to ring the Nine Tailors for any of us.

That's my foot relieved to be on its way down the medieval staircase.

Goodbye to the bell tower.

(If you are interested in the Dorothy Sayers book, The Nine Tailors, it is still in print and available at Amazon.)

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Don Meuler said...

Really fascinating! This is something I'll need to learn more about. Won't be the same coming from a book, though. said...

It is a wonderful story, in which I learned one should never walk around a church "widdershins"--you can look that up! (It means counterclockwise.) And if you haven't met Lord Peter, well, its a must, along with his perfection of a valet, Bunter. As in "Bunter. Launch the Lagonda!"