A Quarter for Malcolm Creese

Ringing the changes in Cambridgeshire

  • 13 April 2015
  • Author: Janet
  • Number of views: 4750

Swaledale Festival’s artistic director, Malcolm Creese, is well known as a double bass player but on 12 April he added a quite different musical accomplishment to his record. He rang his first quarter peal on the bells of the church of St Mary, Swaffham Bulbeck in Cambridgeshire. It took 42 minutes, the conductor was Martin Kitson, and the Tower Captain is Lesley Boyle.

A quarter peal is a major milestone in the life of anyone who takes up church bell ringing. ‘Peals’ are when the bells are rung with the order changing at every stroke. Bells only move one place per stroke and the skill is to ring according to a pattern which will ensure that a certain number of different changes is rung. The ‘conductor’ is the person who decides when the ringing starts and stops and calls out when various actions within the ringing pattern are carried out to ensure the changes do not repeat. The number of changes possible increases factorially with the number of bells, but a quarter peal is usually about 1250 different changes and the pattern to which the changes are rung is called the method. For a full peal to be valid, at least 5000 different changes must be rung (there are 40,320 possible permutations on 8 bells!).  Many of these methods have colourful locational and historical names; the one Malcolm rang was Plain Bob Triples. The ‘Triples’ part of the name indicates that seven bells (5040 possible changes) are doing the changes and on this occasion Malcolm was ringing the eighth ‘covering’ bell. Although the position of a covering bell in the sequence doesn’t change, it still means that the ringer must keep a careful watch/listen that the bell is always rung accurately in that final place and, as it will take about 40 - 45 minutes of non-stop ringing, it is a fairly strenuous activity, especially at the first attempt. The covering bell that Malcolm was ringing was the tenor - the heaviest bell in the ring, weighing over 10cwt (532 kg) or half a ton. Bell weights are still given in the old imperial weights as ringing in this form is a peculiarly English activity – it is not even common in Scotland and Wales.

The tower at Swaffham Bulbeck has 8 bells tuned in G#. The 6 largest bells date from 1820 with the two lightest being added in 2000 – a year in which many churches got new or recast bells to celebrate the new millennium. Many churches have bells that cannot be rung for lack of a band to ring them. It is an activity that teenagers take to with particular agility, both mental and physical, and few towers now expect the bellringers always to stay on and attend services after Sunday ringing. If you may be interested in learning more contact your local church with a tower to ask about it or contact the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers who will put you in touch with your nearest band.

Congratulations to Malcolm. A first quarter peal is quite an achievement.

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