Go to almost any town or village in the UK and a church tower will not be far away, but what’s actually inside?
There are over 5,000 bell towers for change ringing in England, with less than 300 in the rest of the world.
Despite coming in many shapes, sizes and materials, most bell towers have a familiar layout. At the top are the bells, spreading the sound out to the community, below which is usually a clock room. The bell ringers usually stand on the ground floor, or first floor if there is a lobby below.
At the top of the tower, the bells are hung in a wooden or metal frame with each bell fixed to the axle of a large wooden wheel that pivots in ball bearings on the frame. A rope is tied to the wheel spokes, runs partly round the rim and falls through holes and pulleys to the ringing chamber below. Clock hammers sit adjacent to the bells and are used to strike the clock chimes.
How many bells?
Most bell towers contain six or eight bells, with many also having five, ten or twelve bells. There are also towers which have four or less, although they are not generally used for change ringing.
These baffle-boarded sound windows are seen on the outside of the tower and help to spread the sound.
Behind the wide, decorative faces of church clocks are large mechanisms. Some towers also contain machines known as ‘carillons’, which play the bells in a similar fashion to a keyboard, using hammers to strike to notes.
The complicated mechanisms used to be wound-up by hand but are now mainly electrically operated.
From here the bell ringers use the ropes to control the bells. The ropes come down from the ceiling in a circle by the pitch of the bell – usually so the strikes go clockwise around the room in descending pitch. Bell ringers stand in an inward-facing circle behind the ropes. Often you will find floor mats used to prevent rope wear, boxes for the shorter ringers, and seats for extra ringers.
In many ringing chambers, the walls are decorated with boards marking notable peals, a period of non-stop ringing for three hours. Many of these date back hundreds of years.