When Connie Engle traveled to London with her church choir more than 25 years ago to sing at St. Martin in the Fields, facing Trafalgar Square, she became fascinated with the ancient practice of change ringing — the melodious sound of tower bells calling the congregation to service, announcing a death or a birth, or celebrating liturgical holidays. The next year, in 1993, Connie began ringing at St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, where the bells mark worship times and special occasions.
The building’s Patton Tower houses nine 80 percent copper bells, tuned to the Standard International Pitch. Even visiting British change ringers reportedly consider them some of the best bells in the world.
“It’s amazing how many people in Hendersonville have no idea these bells exist,” says Engle — not to mention that actual people are there ringing them. “It’s fun and challenging and unique, and we’d love more people to become interested.”
St. James’ Patton Tower is one of approximately 50 change-ringing towers in the United States and Canada. The freestanding structure was part of an expansion of St. James in 1978 (the church was consecrated in 1863). The tower houses the original bell from its predecessor, the now-automated Angelus bell that Hendersonville hears rung each morning, noon, and evening to mark the passing day. It also shelters the other eight, newer bells cast by England’s Whitechapel Foundry. The bells all have names, as is traditional. The original bell is called William, after the man who supervised the installation of the tower bells and taught a first group of ringers. The other eight are named for the four Gospels and the four seasons.
St. James’ Ringing Master is Bob Aldinger, who supervises some 15 ringers working in groups of eight or nine. He learned to ring in Hawaii, where he and his wife Marty had retired after his military service, and where a newly built bell tower had been dedicated near their home. But as with many ringers, Aldinger’s path began in England; Marty had learned to ring there when the couple was stationed in London. Handling a bell and getting it to ring in the proper place, says Aldinger, “was an interesting combination of physical coordination, sensing and controlling the bell, and listening to fit in properly with the other bells.”
Change ringing isn’t about reproducing a melody, like a mechanical carillon. It requires following a set sequence and cadence. Ringers adhere to a memorized pattern indicating where and when each bell is to be rung in relation to the others. The change begins and ends as a simple descending scale (called a round), from the highest tuned treble bell to the lowest tuned tenor. In between, the pattern can shift to other sequences the group has memorized and which are called out by the conductor, with names like Plain Hunt, Plain Bob, and Grandsire Triples. The ne plus ultra of change ringing is a peal, where the bells are rung in different permutations without ever repeating a pattern. This can take up to three hours of what Aldinger calls “very concentrated ringing.”
“Change ringing is a team effort, and learning to ring together is a bonding experience,” says Beverly Ward. Having rung at Patton Tower’s dedication more than 40 years ago, he is the longest serving member of the St. James ringers. He remembers watching the installation of the bells at the National Cathedral in Washington in the 1960s, while he was a Fellow of the Cathedral’s College of Musicians. It was the beginning of his passion. “Change ringing is part of my spiritual existence,” says Ward. “I’ve enjoyed learning and teaching others over the almost 41 years I’ve been at it.”
His long attachment underscores the challenges in maintaining this tradition, obscure to many, that stretches back to the early 17th century. “It’s difficult to recruit new ringers” to the all-volunteer operation, Engle admits. Four of St. James’ ringers are in their eighties.
James Loy is among the newer members of the St. James Guild, having joined nine years ago. “My wife and I are both Anglophiles and have made several trips to England and heard tower bells there,” Loy says. “Change ringing is fun. We’re a very congenial group and we laugh a lot. It’s the pleasure of being part of a practice that’s gone on for hundreds of years.”
“Ringing is multigenerational,” notes Tony Micocci, one of the St. James ringers who’s been practicing the art for 50 years. “I’ve known whole families that ring, and it involves as many women as men.”
Membership or regular attendance at the church isn’t required for newcomers, nor is ringing particularly physically challenging, because of the way modern bells are hung and balanced.
“As soon as someone can reach the rope, they’re eligible to begin learning,” says Engle. “The younger the better.”
The St. James Guild of Change Ringers (St. James Episcopal Church, 766 North Main St., Hendersonville) practices weekly on Saturday mornings and Monday evenings. To learn more about the group, call 828-693-7458, visit stjamesepiscopal.com, or e-mail Bob Aldinger at email@example.com. For more information about the North American Guild Of Change Ringers, see nagcr.org.