The bells of Washington National Cathedral

[Washington Window] High above the city, at the top of Washington National Cathedral’s Gloria in Excelsis Tower, six English peal bells are ringing out into the dark and windy night.

In the ringing room below the bells – there are 10, in total, ranging in size from 607 to 3,588 pounds – members of the Washington Ringing Society are deep in concentration.

They are standing, facing each other, on a raised circular platform, pulling ropes that descend through holes in the ceiling to ring the bells, attached to wooden pulleys above.

Behind and beneath them, the lights of the nation’s capital twinkle through tall windows to the North, South, East and West, meeting stars at the horizon.

The ringing room

It’s a magical place.

In one corner, a small elevator – the old-fashioned kind, with a grille – opens directly into the room, and in another, a metal staircase spirals through the floor and ceiling, leading to the peal bells, above, and the carillon, a set of 53 fixed bells, below.

Electric bar heaters are suspended from the ceiling on chains, a blackboard lists a method for changes on six bells called “Plain Hunt” in white chalk and a tall wooden cabinet is stacked with gold-embossed ledgers. A stepladder stands against one wall.

Creaky but comfortable chairs face inward, and back issues of The Ringing World, a weekly journal published in England, are spread out on a battered coffee table. Twisted lengths of rope hang from a coat rack, and a bulletin board stuck with notices and newspaper clippings is set beside a brass plaque that lists the inscriptions on the bells.

It’s hard to believe that below the worn beige carpet, two hundred feet beneath the ringers’ toes, is the Cathedral’s stately central crossing.

Ringing the changes

The art and science of change ringing, the ringing of permutations or “changes” on a set of tuned bells, has been practiced in English church towers since the mid 1600s.

“Ringing in North America has only been going on in earnest for the last 40 years,” says Rick Dirksen, one of the Cathedral’s original ringers. “It has grown rather a lot – it was pretty lonely back then.”

Dirksen was part of a small group of men and boys from the Cathedral close who began learning to ring in 1963, just ahead of the bells’ installation.

“We had no instruction,” he says. “We had no idea what change ringing was about. We had no idea what the bell ringing culture was about.”

Thrown in at the deep end, Dirksen learned quickly, taking lessons from a visiting English ringer. In 1965, he was named the Cathedral’s first Ringing Master.

While there are approximately 40,000 change ringers in the U.K. today, there are fewer than 500 in North America, Dirksen says. Approximately 40 people with varying levels of experience belong to the Washington Ringing Society, ringing the bells at the Cathedral and at the Old Post Office Tower, which houses the Bells of Congress.

Tonight, Meredith Morris is leading the society’s weekly practice at the Cathedral, calling changes from the 6 Bell, the largest in play.

The other five watch each other intently and respond to her calls – “5 to 2,” “5 to 1,” “4 to 1” – by switching the order in which they pull their ropes.

They pull the tail of the ropes down (back stroke), then reach up to grasp the sally, a section of rope marked with purple wool (hand stroke), sending the bells above them, which are fastened to wooden wheels, through a complete circle.

The sounds of the bells weave together in a pattern like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6
1 3 2 4 5 6
1 3 2 5 4 6
1 3 5 2 4 6
3 1 5 2 4 6

A different kind of history

To ring a full peal of 5,040 changes on six bells, Dirksen explains, the ringers must cycle through all 720 possible changes seven consecutive times without stopping or changing ringers. It takes about three hours to ring a full peal on six bells, and can only be officially recorded as such if no mistakes are made.

“For it to count, you have to succeed, and success is not easy, so it’s a good occasion when you get one,” he says. Some ringers travel far and wide to try for peals on other church bells, recording their efforts in small notebooks provided by The Ringing World.

Peals are attempted about six times a year on the Cathedral’s bells, Dirksen says, for special occasions, joyful or solemn.

Mary Clark, a veteran ringer in a red down vest, moves over to the cabinet that houses the tower’s record books.

Rifling through the stack of ledgers, she finds the first one, flips open the first page.

Here, in immaculate black ink, the first peal of the Cathedral’s bells is recorded: May 9, 1964; three hours and 25 minutes. “Rung for the dedication of the Gloria in Excelsis Tower, the Carillon and the Bells of the Cathedral.”

The method rung that day, Stedman Caters, also is noted, along with the careful signatures of each of the ringers, representing 10 bell towers in England. (This information also appears on an ornately carved wooden plaque in the ringing room).

“They were among the finest ringers in the world,” says Dirksen, who got a crash course in bell ringing from the band while they were here. He still keeps in touch with the surviving three, one of whom returned in 1976 to ring for the nation’s bicentennial.

“It’s a real history,” Clark says, leafing through the pages. “If you read what we rang for, you get a real sense of what was going on at the Cathedral and in the country.”

She locates the entry for a 1980 peal, Plain Bob Royal, “rung to welcome the New Year, but rung half muffled at the request of the Provost in witness of the continuing captivity of the American citizens in Tehran.”

Other entries include presidential inaugurations, the recent funerals of Presidents Reagan and Ford and occasions such as “the Millennium of Russian Orthodox Christianity.”

On Sept. 29, 1990, Clark stood in the Gloria in Excelsis Tower and watched as the Cathedral’s final stone was lowered into place on the West tower.

“Then we rang for three and a half hours,” she says. “A peal.”

How the bells came to be

“In 1956, the Cathedral received a very major gift,” Dirksen says, pausing in the South Transept’s overcroft, which is filled, like any old attic, with objects under plastic dust sheets. Except in this case, the items include a suit of armor, broken gargoyles, a plaster model of the Majestus and a large scale model of the Cathedral and grounds.

“At that point,” he says, moving into the area directly above the crossing, “the Cathedral consisted of the Great Choir. No South Transept. No tower. This,” he points to the floor, “would have been the roof.”

Presented with about $7 million in unrestricted funds from banker James Sheldon, (the only condition was that a statue of George Washington be placed on the close), the Cathedral Foundation was faced with a conundrum. Should it build the tower up, enhancing the cathedral’s visibility, or extend the nave to the West, increasing its capacity?

“Dean [Francis B.] Sayre thought symbolically and practically, visibility was the way to go,” Dirksen says. “It took the Cathedral Chapter about two years to make a decision, but the Dean and architect Philip Frohman ultimately won.”

A big selling point for the tower was that funds for the bells had already been given in the 1930s – by Bessie J. Kibbey, in memory of her grandparents. But when Sayre and Frohman suggested the tower should have an English peal, like Westminster Abbey, “a chapter member reminded them that the bequest was very specific – for a carillon.”

In the end, the Cathedral installed both carillon and peal bells – it’s the only tower in North America to house both – and funds were raised for the peal bells in just two weeks.

“Because,” Dirksen says, smiling: “Bells are easy to sell.”

The bells of Whitechapel

Both sets of bells were cast in England; the peal bells at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London (famous bells include Big Ben and the first Liberty Bell) and the carillon at John Taylor Bellfounders, the world’s largest bell foundry, in Loughborough.

After sending a craftsman to Washington, D.C., to meet with architects and engineers, Whitechapel designed a radial bellframe for the new peal bells. The frame is the second of its kind (the first was made for Liverpool Cathedral in 1939) and the first to be constructed from steel. The innovative design was chosen for its stability: the height of the Cathedral’s belfry increases the risk of tower movement, but with the radial design the bellframe is mechanically insulated from the building.

The Whitechapel foundry, in London’s East End, has been operating in the same location since the reign of Elizabeth I. Twenty-seven monarchs and well over four centuries later, it is still in business, casting bells for the world’s great churches.

Cast at Whitechapel, the Cathedral’s bells join a large international family that includes the Great Bell of Montreal and the bells of Christ Church, Philadelphia and St. Michael’s, Charleston (S.C.). English “cousins” include Westminster Abbey’s bells and those of St. Mary le Bow and St. Clement Danes, of Oranges and Lemons fame, in London.

Honoring this connection, members of the Whitechapel Guild, a group of girls from the National Cathedral School, ring the bells each Wednesday afternoon.

The carillon

While the peal bells ring “wild and free,” the carillon is a completely different instrument, Dirksen says, playing conventional, recognizable music and hymns.

“The sound is very rich and sort of a full-bodied, dark, English sound,” says Edward Nassor, who plays the carillon, an organ-like instrument with a keyboard and pedals, from a small chamber beneath the bells.

The carillon consists of 53 bells which are bolted to a steel frame in the space beneath the ringing room. The bells weigh 64 tons in total and range in size from 17 pounds to 12 tons, a bell the size of Big Ben. It’s the third heaviest carillon in the world.

“When the carillonneur pushes down on the key, the wire is a direct connection to the clapper of the bell,” Dirksen says. The clappers are fixed, unlike those of the peal bells, only moving about a half inch when the keys are struck.

Nassor has served as carillonneur since 1990, when he was invited to play for the Cathedral’s consecration. He is the Cathedral’s fourth carillonneur.

“It’s kind of a rare art,” he says. “It takes a lot of training.”

It also takes a lot of practice – nine hours of preparation for every hour of playing – which he does in a soundproofed rehearsal studio in the South Transept overcroft.

Here, Nassor polishes the pieces he will play for his weekly Saturday recitals (12:30 to 1:15 p.m.) and as a prelude to the Cathedral’s Sunday services (beginning at 11 a.m.)

He generally plays the hymns of the day, to draw worshippers to the Cathedral.

“We kind of frame the service with bells,” he says. “The carillon plays before and the peal bells afterward.”

It’s warm and cozy in the practice room, but the real thing is much more exhilarating, he says. Stepping out into the elements – the huge tower windows are open, with just a screen preventing birds and bats from getting in – Nassor makes his way to the small room beneath the bells and unlocks the gray metal door.

“It’s quite a thrill to be sitting at the keyboard and be looking out at the Blue Ridge Mountains 60 miles away,” he says. “That’s just a feeling you can’t duplicate anywhere.”

Learning to ring

Climbing the Gloria in Excelsis Tower for the first time during the 2006 Flower Mart, Carleton J. MacDonald, a parishioner at Ascension, Gaithersburg, was captivated.

“Just suddenly, something inside said, ‘You should do this. Go sign up,’” he recalls.

He added his name to the list of want-to-be bell ringers, and has been taking part in the weekly Tuesday night rehearsals ever since.

“It’s incredibly fun and fascinating,” he says. “And I hope at some point I can figure out how to do it well.”

“Teaching people to do this takes quite some time,” says Dirksen, who coaches the Whitechapel Guild. “It takes about a year before people can begin to do some basic ringing.”

“It’s much harder than it looks,” says Lynn Schwalje, a hand bell ringer who travels in from Annapolis each week with her husband, Michael. “It’s like spinning a car up there. You have to understand the technique, and it’s not something you can pick up quickly.”

“The tricky thing about it is you have to count,” says David Hole, an 11-year ringer who makes his living as an accountant. “But you also have to keep control of the bell.”

Hole also stumbled into bell ringing after taking part in a tower climb, but his interest had already been piqued by Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1934 murder mystery, The Nine Tailors.

In the novel, sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey uses his knowledge of bell ringing to solve a 20-year-old mystery involving a stolen emerald necklace.

“An awful lot of people learn about bell ringing via that book,” Hole says. “And I was one of them.”

Mysteries aside, bell ringing is a fun, physical, intellectually stimulating and social activity, says Alex Taft, who has been a bell ringer since high school.

Ringing far and wide

Taft has served as captain at the Old Post Office Tower, has 30 peals under his belt and has rung at more than 100 English churches – a popular pastime for dedicated ringers.

Like Taft, Theresa Rice has been traveling to English bell towers for 17 years, ringing “everything from an 11-pound treble the size of a teacup” to Liverpool Cathedral’s Bartlett Bells, the heaviest ringing peal in the world (largest bell weighs 14.5 tons).

Her travels have taken her to around 1,700 towers, from those that have been sadly neglected to Coventry Cathedral, whose bell tower was all that remained after a 1940 German bomb reduced the rest of the cathedral to rubble.

“You’re standing in the ringing room looking down on the ruins,” she remembers, still awed by the experience.

Dirksen also visits England regularly, organizing and leading trips for the Whitechapel Guild and visiting 35 or 40 bell towers per 10-day trip.

“Ringers come out to meet you and show you their tower, ring with you, provide support and feed you, so the kids just have a ball,” he says.

Bell ringing is a hobby that lends itself to travel, Taft says. “But,” he adds, “I think it’s less about places to ring and more about achieving that perfection. It’s about ringing really, really accurately with people who know how to ring.”

“It’s just a team effort,” Hole says. “I think it’s much the same as singers: everybody’s together. It has the same feeling of precision.”

There’s also a spiritual dimension to ringing church bells, Taft says: “It’s a nice opportunity to participate in the church. To serve.”

Nassor, the carillonneur, wholeheartedly agrees.

“It’s a great honor to play such a fine instrument, and I feel for a noble purpose,” he says. “It’s drawing worshippers to the Cathedral. It’s almost a musical mission.”

First appeared in Washington Window Vol. 77 No. 1 January 2008 as

Ringing the changes

The bells of Washington National Cathedral