The History of Charlbury through ... the sound of church bells
Judy Dod for Charlbury Museum
Wednesday evening this week brought the welcome return of the sound of church bells ringing out across the town. Silent since the start of the pandemic because the ringers could not maintain social distancing, the return of the bells was seen by many as a sign of some normality returning to life.
There is a ring of six bells in St Mary’s church tower, all cast in 1716 by Abraham Rudhall of Gloucester. The smallest weighs 5 cwt and the heaviest and largest, the tenor bell tuned to F, weighs in at 14 cwt and is 43 inches in diameter. The bells are supported on oak frames.
Bells were first introduced in Christian churches around 400 AD - church bells were mentioned by Bede in 680AD. A “ring of bells” is the name given to a set of bells hung for English circle ringing. Rings can contain between 3 and 16 bells, but 6 or 8 bells are the most common. The earliest English ring of church bells appeared in the 11th century but bells were not tuned to particular notes until attempts were made to do so in the 16th and 17th centuries.
At a time when few people possessed time pieces, church bells marked the times of church services and were also used to sound the alarm when disaster threatened. In WW2 bell ringing was banned for a time, and bells were only to be rung in the case of invasion.
The phrase “to ring the changes” originates from bell ringing. The bells can be struck in many different orders to produce a different pattern of sound, and each particular pattern is called a change. To “ring the changes” means that the variations of striking pattern are rung in turn, eventually bringing the ring back to its starting point.
Also in the tower is an older, sanctus bell, thought to have been cast around 1599. This was traditionally rung at the consecration of the Eucharist. It has other nicknames too. Mike Summers thinks of it as the “hurry up” bell as it was rung after the big bells were taken down and the service was about to start. In the past it was called the “Yorkshire Pudding Bell”: it chimed at noon at the end of Matins and those housewives not at church knew it was time to cook their puddings. And our bellringers keep up the tradition of tolling the bell at mid-day on Shrove Tuesday – the “Pancake bell”.
The Charlbury tower has about ten active bellringers but new volunteers are always welcome. Please contact the Captain of the Tower, Mike Summers, if you are interested in joining the group. email@example.com