Husband and wife had a hunch they'd enjoy tolling church bells together
ERISWELL — Ask Peter Petty and Lt. Col. Constance Huff to give you a ring, and you might get more than you bargained for.
To the married couple from this little village tucked between RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, a “ring” involves rigorous physical activity, loud music and swinging hunks of heavy metal.
It’s church bells ringing, and you probably know the melody.
The pealing of the local church bells piqued the interest of the pair when they arrived here in 2001, when Huff was assigned to be chief of pediatric dentistry for the 48th Dental Squadron.
Looking for a way to get involved in the local community, Petty and Huff inquired at the town’s 1,000-year-old church of St. Lawrence about giving the bells a try, and soon found themselves among a small number of Americans who have learned the craft.
“We were just interested,” Petty said. “We thought it would be neat to ring the bells.”
But tolling a set of church bells isn’t as easy as, well, ringing a bell. A precise art at its highest levels, ringing has a long history in England from which several refined forms have evolved, such as “change ringing” or tolling “peals.”
To ring a set of church bells requires a group of people, often referred to as a band, with each person manning a single rope due to the size and weight of church bells.
It’s that size and weight that also makes ringing potentially dangerous, Petty said.
To start a bell ringing, a band member first turns the bell completely upside down to a position where it can rest against a wooden bar called a “stay.” The result looks harmless from the bottom — just a set of ropes hanging motionless in the ringing chamber.
But it takes just a slight tug on the cord to set an upside-down bell in motion, and when several hundred pounds of metal start swinging back and forth, violent-looking things begin to happen.
Huff was explaining as much recently when suddenly, after just an easy downward pull on the line in front of her, the rope in her hands rocketed straight up through the ceiling through a three-inch hole, yanked powerfully upward as her bell made its first 360-degree swing. Bong!
“If you’re holding on to the rope at the wrong time, it can pull you off your feet,” she said. And church bells get much more formidable than Eriswell’s mini set. In some of England’s bigger churches, they can weigh as much as a compact automobile, said Ruth Ogden, a veteran ringer who tutors Petty and Huff.
“You’re just controlling this small car with one rope,” she said. And if you get caught up in that rope, she added, “You’re not going to win.”
But aside from the physical challenges of church bell ringing, Petty and Huff stress that the biggest benefit of joining the local band is how quickly and deeply Americans can get involved in their local community.
“To be doing such a traditional English thing in such a traditional setting, it’s just …” said Huff, looking for the words to describe it.
“It’s all part of the experience of being with the military overseas,” Petty finished.
In Eriswell, the connection also runs one level deeper. Bell ringing also has acted as a link between local British civilians and the Air Force, which donated two of the church’s bells in 1958.
And anyone can learn, Odgen said. A little bit of timing and coordination, an ability to remember simple sequences of numbers and an appetite for practice are all it takes.
“You don’t have to be musical, though a sense of music helps,” Ogden said. Nor do you have to be a member of a parish church, she said.
“You don’t have to be a churchgoer,” she said.
Bell ringing terms
Change — A pattern of ringing each bell in the tower once in a specific order.
Peal — The sound a bell makes or, as a noun, a style of bell ringing.
Clapper — The arm in the center of the bell that makes the noise.
Plain Bob and Grandsire — Two types of changes bell ringers use.
Stay — A wooden beam used to stop the bell from swinging 360 degrees.
Soundbow — The widest part of the bell at the bottom, where the clapper strikes.