British Columbia·Photos

'I've been hooked ever since': The complicated art of change ringing

Several times a week a small group of bell ringers gather at a downtown Vancouver church to practice the centuries-old art of change ringing.

Several times a week a small group of bell ringers gather at a downtown Vancouver church to practise the art

There are eight massive bells in the belfry of the Gothic-style church in downtown Vancouver. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Michael Connidis leads the way up a narrow chamber to a place many get to hear, but not see.

"This is the belfry in the church tower," he says, with his arms stretched out pointing to eight massive bells that are hung mouth up, ready to be pulled by ropes that hang below.

The bells are over 100 years old and were mounted at the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Cathedral at Dunsmuir and Richards streets for the centuries-old art of change ringing. 

"I just love it," said Connidis, who is with the Vancouver Society of Change Ringers. 

The bells date back to 1905. The ones made in France have detailed embellishing compared to the ones cast in England. Some have a City of Vancouver engraving on them. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The practice dates back to 17th century England, where there are still thousands of churches with change-ringing bells. Here in Canada, there are seven, including three in B.C. 

Several times a week a small but devoted group of bell ringers gather in the ringing chamber to practise. They will also be ringing the bells this Christmas Eve and on New Year's Eve. 

Watch the video below to see and hear the change ringers in action:

A small group of bell ringers gather at a downtown Vancouver church to practice several times a week. 1:36

Most of them aren't churchgoers, but are attracted to the complicated process of sounding the bells.

As The North American Guild of Change Ringers puts it on their website, "Change ringing is a team sport, a highly co-ordinated musical performance, an antique art, and a demanding exercise that involves a group of people ringing rhythmically a set of tuned bells through a series of changing sequences that are determined by mathematical principles and executed according to learned patterns." 

Connidis came to the art form by chance. He was walking past the church one day when he heard the bells and looked up to find people pulling on the ropes in the tower. 

"I've been hooked ever since.... I can't describe how it just grabbed me," he said.

You can catch the bells ring at the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Cathedral on Dunsmuir and Richards streets in downtown Vancouver on the following days and times:

Christmas Eve - Tuesday, Dec. 24 from 10:25 p.m. until 11 p.m. 

New Year's Eve - Tuesday, Dec. 31 from 11:25 to midnight.

Johanna Vandenberg, 24, was intrigued to learn more after reading a mystery novel set in a bell tower. After that it took three months of practice until she was able to ring a bell on her own. 

"I like the challenge. I like learning new stuff all the time and trying to be better at these kind of things and I just love the sound of bells," she said.

While the bells are heavy — the heaviest weighs the same as a Volkswagen Beetle — ringing them is not a physically taxing job if you do it properly. 

Alan Ellis has been change ringing for over 60 years. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
The ringers stand in a circle with red wool mats in front of them. The mats are there to protect the ropes, otherwise the ropes would suffer damage and need to be replaced sooner than their current eight-year cycle. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"I've rung with someone in [their] 90s, I've rung with people who are in wheelchairs, I've rung with people who are blind. So you can do it. It's not a matter of strength but matter of finesse," said Connidis.

Change-ringing is more math than music. 

Though the bells are heavy, anyone can swing them with the right technique. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Ringers have to memorize the sequence of how the bells are rung from what's called the book of methods. And there are thousands of possibilities or permutations. 

"They weave back and forth. You learn the method by learning the pattern itself and then you have to learn where you start on that pattern on each individual bell," said Connidis, pointing to the equivalent of a music sheet.

Bell ringers memorize from what is called a book of methods, which shows in what sequence the bells are rung. There are thousands of possibilities. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

It requires teamwork and unwavering concentration, which is why there are three golden rules when you're in the ringing chamber.

"The first is when we are ringing please don't talk," said Connidis.

Johanna Vandenberg, 24, was intrigued to learn more about change ringing after reading a mystery novel. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The second is when you're sitting down keep both feet on the ground.

"These ropes are potentially hazardous, they can catch you on your feet or ankles and flip you upside down pretty quickly, and it has happened," he said. 

Change ringing requires plenty of concentration. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The third rule is to not touch any of the ropes, unless you're invited to do so.

But the folks at the Vancouver Change Ringers Society are very welcoming and are always looking for volunteers to keep the tradition alive.

The bells will be ringing on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Cathedral at the corner of Dunsmuir and Richards streets. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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