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Quarter peals explained

We sometimes ring a quarter peal, before evensong or a special service, or to celebrate an important event. After a recent quarter peal attempt, we rang quite well up to the service, and as we emerged from the tower, the warden on duty congratulated us on the quality of ringing. When I explained that we had lost the quarter peal, and then rung something else, he was surprised that it was possible to ‘lose’ one. I realised that this is another aspect of ringing hidden to non ringers, so in the interest of wider enlightenment, here is a brief explanation.

Most ringing consists of several short pieces (5-10 minutes each) during which different groups of the ringers present, ring different methods. There are normally more ringers than ropes, so that shares the ringing around. It also adds variety, enabling the more experienced ringers to ring things that the less experienced could not.

A quarter peal is different (so too is a peal or a date touch). It is a much longer performance, of a set length, to a specific composition, and with the same person ringing each bell throughout (so those not in the band get the evening off). On our bells, a quarter peal takes 45 - 50 minutes, so when we attempt one, we start earlier than for normal service ringing. As well as being longer, the performance is also rung to a specific composition.

So how can you ‘lose’ a quarter peal? To answer that, you need to understand a bit about about how method ringing works. Like conventional music, a performance consists of a sequence of notes (nearly 11,000 notes in the case of an 8-bell quarter peal) but the ringers don’t have any ‘music’ in front of them. Each ringer memorises a set of patterns and rules for how the ‘method’ (the equivalent of a tune) works. So when, for example, the conductor says ‘Go Cambridge Surprise Major’, the eight ringers know how to ring the following 1792 notes (224 each) without any further information. It’s a bit like saying ‘Hymn 196’ to a choir that sings from memory. The difference is that whereas in a hymn, everyone sings the same words with the same rhythm, and only the notes differ in the four parts, in a method every bell strikes at a different time, and the music emerges from the continually changing sequence.

A ‘plain course’ of a method only takes a few minutes to ring (Cambridge Surprise Major takes 8 minutes) so for a quarter peal, it has to be extended with ‘calls’ – commands that momentarily change the sequence. After each call, the rules of the method continue, but the ringing is now on a different track. The ‘composition’ is the sequence of points at which the calls are made. This is where the conductor comes in, because (s)he has to remember to call them all at the right points.

So back to our original question: how can you lose a quarter peal? To quote the well known phrase ‘to err is human’ – people can and do make mistakes. Small slips are recoverable, from the knowledge of the method, and how the ‘work’ of different bells fits together. But bigger trips can cascade, and because the paths of different bells intermesh, one wrong bell alters the sign posts used by the others. Anyone ringing ‘on autopilot’ (which is easy to do when you know a method well) can be caught out and make another trip, and so on. Once the ringing destabilises, it is hard for any but the most clear headed to retain their bearings, and the method ‘fires out’. If you have ever heard it happen, you will understand why recovery is unlikely, and to minimise the distress of those listening, the conductor will call the bells round.

Trips are more common at the beginning, before people settle into the ringing, so we normally allow for a ‘false start’. Then if it breaks down after 5 or 10 minutes, we just start again. But ringing for a service limits the scope for restarting, because we must stop on time.

The attempt in question, started very well, with an almost faultless first course, but then fired out after a trip. We started again, but the ringing was much less confident, and we had to stop after a couple more trips. With too little time left to complete a quarter peal, we re-grouped, rang an easier method, and produced 20 minutes of well struck ringing for the service. That is what elicited the complement, but it wasn’t a quarter peal.

John Harrison (June 2006)

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