Bellringing and Bosham Tower

If you live in the village you will have heard us ringing for services on Sunday mornings or practising on Thursday evenings. We hope this overview of what we do will arouse your curiosity – please feel free to visit us and perhaps try your hand at our ancient art.

If you are a ringer we look forward to meeting you. Bosham has a ring of six bells in f with a tenor of 13-0-7 (664kgs). Have you rung in the past and are considering starting again? Please come and say hello.

Thursdays are practice nights, learners from 7.10 followed by the main practice between 7.45 and 9pm plus additional times on our ringing simulator by arrangement. We ring every Sunday between 9 and 9.25am.

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Bellringing celebrates the joy of weddings and victories, intones the sadness of deaths and funerals, and summons people to church. The casual listener immediately recognises that some bells play hymns, songs and melodies. Those bells are called carillons or chimes; they do not swing and the striking of the clappers is controlled by one person.

The bells at Holy Trinity Church in Bosham and in towers like it all over the country produce no recognisable tunes. Yet they are rung in sequences as disciplined and orderly as the stones and timbers of the towers themselves. These bells, rung in an ancient yet very modern way, produce a rich cascade of sound. This is called change ringing.

Change ringing requires special bells, special “music” and ordinary people who enjoy climbing towers and working as a team. The human ingredient is critical because change ringing is very different from playing a carillon or chime. It is not a single person sitting at a keyboard.

There are no computers or electronic devices. Change ringing depends on real bells, each swung in a complete circle by a single person: six bells as at Bosham – six people, eight bells as at Chichester Cathedral – eight people, standing in a circle.

Folklore 

Bells attract legends, folklore and other myths.  Indeed, bells hold a fascination for the imagination because of their holiness and beauty, their power against evil spirits and the slightly eerie sense of mystery that surrounds them.

Particularly memorable are the legends of lost church bells and Sussex has its fair share of these, the most famous being that of the ‘Bosham Bell’, which first appeared in print in the late nineteenth century but is probably much older.

There are some variations of detail but the main outline of the tale is this:

In the days of Alfred the Great Bosham was a flourishing port with a fine church and rich monastery; but in those days the Sussex coast was frequently attacked by bands of Viking raiders.  One day a Viking ship was sighted making for Bosham harbour and, at this, not only the farmers and fishermen but even the priests and monks fled inland, taking with them whatever valuables they could carry away and abandoning the rest of their goods to fate.

So it happened that when the raiders landed they found the church undefended and were able to carry off the great tenor bell, the finest in the whole peal.  They lashed it to the cross-benches of their ship and set sail, delighted with their prize.

Meanwhile, the monks crept back to their plundered church.  When they saw the enemy making for the open sea they rang the remaining bells, some say in thanksgiving for their own safety but some say in a backwards peal as a solemn curse on the sacrilegious Danes.  The ship was nearing the mouth of the estuary when this peal came ringing across the water and at the sound the stolen bell broke loose from its moorings and replied, in a single loud note; then it crashed through the ship’s hull, so that bell and ship and men all vanished beneath the waves.

There are some, however, who deny that the ship sank; they say its shattered planking closed again at once and not one drop came in – a miracle that converted the heathen Danes on the spot.  But all agreed that the bell itself disappeared into the depths, at the spot that is now known as Bosham Deep but was formerly known as Bell Hole.  And all agree that whenever the bells ring from Bosham Church the sunken one still answers from beneath the waves.

Now the men of Bosham grieved for their bell and many times tried to recover it but could never do so.  At length, centuries after it had first been lost, a man who was knowledgeable about such matters told them that there was one way to raise it but only one.  They must find a team of pure white oxen (some say white horses), harness them to the bell and so draw it up on shore.

The team was assembled, after much searching; a rope was fastened to the bell and the oxen began to haul.  All went well;  the shape of the huge bell could be glimpsed as it was gradually drawn into shallow water; then all at once, when it had almost touched land, the rope snapped and the bell rolled back into the depths – for, though nobody had noticed this, on one of the oxen there was a single black hair.

So the Bosham Bell was lost again, this time for good and only its answering note is ever heard.  It has more than once been suggested that the ‘answer’ is in fact an echo thrown back across the harbour from woods on the opposite shore.  The legend is well known locally and there is sometimes added to it a little rhyme, the call of the lost bell:

Ye bells of Bosham, ring for me,

For as ye ring, I ring wi’ ye.

The Science

Because of their great momentum bells take about two seconds to rotate, so they cannot be used to play ordinary “melodic” music. But they can be made to follow one another in order, each ringing once before the first rings again. Ringing bells in a precise relationship to one another is the essence of change ringing. Rung in the order from the lightest, highest pitched bell to the heaviest, the bells strike in a sequence known as rounds, which ringers denote by a row of numbers:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

To produce pleasing variations in the sound, bells are made to change places with adjacent bells in the row, for example:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

2 1 4 3 6 5 8 7

These rows are the musical notation of change ringing. No bell moves more than one place in the row at a time, although more than one pair may change in the same row.

The Music

No amount of explanation of change ringing – or its pleasures – can substitute for listening to and ringing bells. However, it may help non-ringers to enjoy change ringing if they know what to listen for.

First, the rhythm should not vary from row to row. The rhythm provides the steady framework within which the complex changes are heard. Listen for two rows rung in precise tempo, followed by a pause equal to the stroke of one bell, followed by two more rows and so on. The pause will help you determine which bell rings first.

Second, listen for the bell that strikes the lowest note. This is the tenor. Sometimes it always strikes last, even when the other bells are changing. Listen for the highest bell, the treble, as it makes its way through the rows. Listen also for the rows in which large bells alternate with small bells throughout the row. These are considered particularly musical, and composers strive to include as many such rows as possible.

Method Ringing

In order to ring a different row with each pull of the rope, ringers have devised methods, orderly systems of changing pairs. In ringing a method the bells begin in rounds, ring changes according to the method and return to rounds without repeating any row along the way. These place changes produce musical patterns, with the sounds of the bells weaving in and out as if they were folk dancing with each other.

The more bells involved, the longer the bells can be rung without repeating a row, frequently referred to as a change. Five bells allow 120 changes (1x2x3x4x5). The numbers increase rapidly. Six bells yield 720 changes (1x2x3x4x5x6), seven bells 5,040. Eight bells can be rung through 40,320 changes.

Experienced ringers test and extend their abilities by ringing peals: 5,000 or more changes without breaks or repeating a row. Peals customarily last about three hours. The first peal was rung in 1715 in England.

A Brief History

Chiming bells (swinging them through a short arc using a rope and a lever) goes well back into the Middle Ages, but it was not until the seventeenth century that ringers developed the full wheel that allowed enough control for orderly ringing.

In 1668 Fabian Stedman published Tintinnalogia – or the Art of Change Ringing, containing all the available information on systematic ringing. The theory of change ringing set forth by Stedman has been refined in later years but remains essentially unchanged today. His Principle is regularly practised here at Bosham.

Why Do People Ring?

Change ringing is a non-competitive activity that is stimulating intellectually and mildly demanding physically whilst making a beautiful sound. It develops mental and physical skills in a team environment. The concentration required completely detaches the mind from the demands of the day.

In addition there is the companionable nature of ringers, interdependence creates a tremendous fellowship. Visitors to a change ringing session will invariably be asked to join in if they are ringers. All ringing sessions include time for socialising.

Could I Be A Ringer?

Almost certainly. Ringing is within the intellectual and physical reach of anyone who can ride a bicycle. If you can count you know all the mathematics you need and you can become a very good ringer without knowing anything else about music.

You be the judge, come to a practice session and join in. At Bosham we practice every Thursday between 7.45 and 9 pm with a learners session between 7.15 and about 7.45, just turn up.

Have you rung in the past and thought about taking it up again? You will be most welcome.

If you would like to research ringing in greater depth have a look at some of the excellent resources in the ringing links in the links section.

Parents of young people are assured that we have a child protection policy in line with that of our church and of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.

George Smith, November 1979

This is a record of a good partnership between the bell foundry and local volunteers in re hanging a ring of six bells weighing between 13 and 4 cwt.  It had been clear for some time that the bells in Holy Trinity, Bosham, needed attention.  A report by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry confirmed this.  An appeal for funds for an urgent re shingling of the spire gave the opportunity to appeal also for the bells; and so the work was authorised.

At the suggestion of the Sussex County Association of Change Ringers, it was agreed that certain work could be undertaken by local effort and this lead to the foundry taking over £1000 off their estimate – a saving of some 25%.  This work included:

  • Dismantling the six bells and lowering the fittings
  • Transporting the fittings to and from the foundry
  • Tightening the nuts and bolts in the bell frame
  • Painting all the iron and steel
  • Hoisting the new fittings into the tower

We felt that we could take this on because of the support offered by the Sussex County Association.  In the event the Association was able to give that support just where it was needed – in supplying blocks and tackles, planks, baulks of timber and in bringing the new fittings back from the foundry.

We would have found it hard going too if the Association team, encouraged and helped by a bevy of wives and girl friends, had not humped those heavy headstocks up one floor to the bottom of the hoist one evening at about ten o’clock.

The parish produced John (Captain of the belfry and retired Esso executive), George (ringer and retired Naval Commander), Norman (retired dentist), Simon (ringer and between college and first job) and Tom (ringer and studying for A levels).

While the last two were only available in the holiday period, their enthusiasm and ability to dodge up and down the ladders in the dismantling phase was much appreciated by those with older legs.  The others saw the job through and were able to provide at least two and usually three to work full time 9am to 5pm (or whenever) each day with Trevor, the immensely experienced bell hanger from the foundry.

The volunteers could and did handle all the major humping and transport problems, but the experience and guidance of Trevor was essential when working on the bells themselves, which was done largely in the capacity of the required “mates” for Trevor.  Very quickly a team spirit grew up.

The dismantling and initial preparatory work involved removing the wheels, lifting the bells by chain hoist, turning them through 90 degrees and lowering them on to timber baulks, each in its own pit.  Then the headstocks and clappers were removed, as were the sliders, runner boards and stays.

The cast-in clapper staples inside the bells were cut out.  The canons were cut off nos. 1,2,3 and 6 – Trevor’s power driven cutting disc made short work of this – but the canons were left on nos. 4 and 5 at the behest of the Diocesan Arts Council in view of the special nature of these bells.  (The bell metal so removed was sufficiently valuable to be returned to the foundry who allowed its value off the final bill.)  Then each bell was hand bored through the centre of the crown, which meant in the case of nos. 4 and 5 going through the canons as well and proved one of the most laborious tasks of the whole procedure.

Three months later the new fittings came back.  There were metal headstocks to replace the old wooden ones – cast iron for nos. 1,2,3 and 6, prefabricated for nos. 4 and 5 and arched to accommodate the canons – all on steel gudgeons to suit the existing bearings.  These had been modified to suit the existing bearings.  These had been modified to give greater clearance on the end plates.  The clappers had been annealed, refaced and welded on to the new top-ends with stainless steel bolts in tufnol bushes at the point of swing and independent staple bolts for bolting up through the bell and headstock.  The wheels had been adapted for the new headstocks and fitted with new rims – indeed one (no.6) had been completely remade.  New sliders, runner boards and stays completed the inventory.

As each headstock was fitted, a wooden pad was placed between it and the bell, all brought together accurately and held by a temporary centre bolt.  The headstock was so positioned at an angle to the original line that the clapper will strike on a new part of the bell.  Four holes were hand drilled in the bell to enable four bolts to secure the headstock.  It was then possible to remove the centre bolt and fit the clapper staple bolt in its place.  All nuts are on top of the bells for easy access.  Setscrews on either side (nos. 1,2,3 and 6 only) enable the clapper to be accurately positioned for even striking.  As nos. 4 and 5 have canon retaining headstocks these setscrews cannot be fitted and clappers must be adjusted as best they can by tapering washers.

The chain hoist was used to lift and swing the bells back on their bearing seatings.  The wheels were fitted to the headstocks.  Metal braces were bolted across the two halves of the wheels to stiffen them and keep them true.  The new stays, runner boards, sliders and slider pins were secured in place.  Final adjustments were then made – cutting the runner boards to get the correct set of the bells, adjusting the clappers, attaching the ropes, repainting all iron and steel surfaces and reconnecting the clock hammer.

Those of us who shared in this work found it a fascinating experience even if we discovered muscles we did not know we possessed!  Certainly our share in the actual work has led not only to a glow of achievement but also to a much clearer understanding of the technicalities of bell hanging.  This must lead to a greater care being taken of the bells and indeed already a “Bell Maintenance Book” has been instituted.  Hopefully this will mean that such things as turning grease caps on guide pulleys and tightening the nuts and bolts on the bell frame will be attended to regularly.  Even the need to take out and repaint the staple bolts on all clappers in ten years’ time is faithfully set out.  Other adjustments, the renewal of ropes etc. will be written in.

A few abiding memories – the patience of Trevor with his makey-learn team; the ingenuity of Simon and Tom in finding finding different, and hopefully easier, ways of lowering wheels from the belfry; the effort of getting a one and five eights drill through four inches of metal by hand; the discussion of Trevor and Norman (the dentist) on their respective experience of drills; the ability of a six part purchase to twist at the bottom of a fifty foot hoist; the relief when all that heavy gear was hoisted up in the course of a single morning; the sight of Trevor standing astride the bell frame swinging the bells by hand to check the striking; the pride of seeing the finished job.

Was it worth the effort? Yes certainly in every sort of way. Please pass the embrocation.

Treble

Weight  4cwts-1qr-18lbs  (224kgs)  Note D

Inscription:

John Whitehead A. M. Vicar, Henry White,

John Harte, Ch.W. 1773. R. Phelps Facit.

No 2

Weight  5cwts-1qr-18lbs  (275kgs)  Note C

Inscription:

Richard Phelps made me, Thomas Darlow

Church-warden 1709

No 3

Weight  6cwts-3qrs  (343kgs)  Note Bb

Inscription:

Thomas Millington, William Widelle,

Church-Wardens 1665.

A.D.1903.

By Mears and Stainbank now recast,

Both sound and true long shall I last,

And unto all this message ring,

Be faithful to your God and King.

H. MacDermott, Vicar.

John Heaver, George Brown, Church-wardens.

No 4

Weight  7cwts-2qrs-16lbs  (388kgs)  Note A

Inscription:

R.B. 1572

No 5

Weight  9cwts  (457kgs)  Note G

Inscription:

John Snow, Minister.

Thomas White, William Hammon C.W.

Clemant Tosear made me in the yeare of 1688

Tenor

Weight 13cwts-7lbs  (664kgs)  Note F

Inscription:

Edward Bennett and Phillip Lawance Ch.

Wardens.

Wand T. Mears, late Lester, Pack and Chapman,

of London, Facit, 1787