September 10, 2008
3 min read

A bout of boredom led to a lifelong passion for tintinnabulation

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Practicing medicine is not the only complex part of John Owen, MD’s life. As a young man Owen found his lifelong passion in the intricate and complex hobby of campanology, or bell ringing.

“I lived next door to a church in South Wales,” said Owen, a professor of hematology and oncology at Wake Forest University. “One summer I was bored, as kids tend to get bored, and the local bell ringers were going to ring that particular night. I went along to take a look at it. I said, ‘Geez, that looks interesting. I could probably try this a couple of times and master it without any problem.’ Here we are now close to 55 years later and I would say I’m not even close to mastering it.”

Mastery has eluded him, but his interest in campanology, or change ringing, has taken him from northern Scotland to southern Argentina and many places in-between.

“I’ve not been to South Africa,” he said. “There are about five pealer towers in South Africa and I’d like to go there sometime.”

Campanology began around the year 1600 when Europeans figured out how to tune bells, according to Owens. About the same time, the Dutch developed the carillon, a type of keyboard for bells, to play classical music and the French were ringing random patterns on bells such as those at the Cathédrale Notre Dame in Paris.

“In England, they developed yet a different system where they took the bells, tuned them to a standard chromatic octave and then rang them in sequence, starting typically from the smaller bells, or high note, to the largest,” Owen said. “This gets boring very quickly, as you can imagine. So they developed a whole structure around this, changing the order in which the bells are rung. That was the birth of what we now know as change ringing.”

According to the North American Guild of Change Ringers, Englishman Fabian Stedman published the first book on change ringing in 1668. Not much has changed since then. “What we do today would be largely recognizable to someone from 1680, or thereabouts,” Owen said.

Set in tradition

The bells, which weigh upwards of two tons, hang in towers. Usually a tower has six or eight bells, but some have as many as 12. There are towers in Dublin, Ireland and Birmingham, England with 16 bells, and The Bell Tower in Perth, Australia has 18 bells, though only 16 are used in a given peal.

There are two kinds of change ringing, peal and service. Service ringing is usually done in connection with a church service and lasts 15 minutes to 45 minutes. Peal ringing is what takes Owen all over the world.

John Owen, MD, getting ready to ring at Christ Church, Raleigh, N.C.
John Owen, MD, getting ready to ring at Christ Church, Raleigh, N.C. ...

“(A peal) consists of ringing 5,000 or more rows, a row being all the bells rung once. Each successive row has to be different from all the others,” he said. “With eight bells, there are 40,320 different rows you can choose from — all eight people better have the same idea. There’s a certain degree of planning that goes into this.”

A peal lasts about three hours and begins and ends with a “round,” all the bells played in order from smallest to largest. Each ringer — together they’re called a band — uses a rope to operate a single bell.

“There is sort of conductor’s type role in all this so that one decides on methods, which is the mathematical scheme to get from one row to the next,” Owen said. “So long as everybody agrees on what that method is, you then appoint someone within the group as conductor who tells you when you’re going to diverge from the method.”

John Owen, MD in the tower of Melrose convent, Brewster, N.Y
... and in the tower of Melrose convent, Brewster, N.Y.

Source: J Owen

An international affair

There are 42 bell towers in the United States and more than 5,000 in the United Kingdom, according to The University of Washington website. Earlier this year, the university announced that it will be installing the first set of change ringing bells on the West Coast at a tower on its Seattle campus.

The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has a set of change ringing bells, as does Miami’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas. Towers are most common in United States in major northeastern cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Owen said Paul Revere was a bell ringer: That is why he had access to Old North Church on the night of his historic ride.

Owen visited England in August to play peals in Birmingham, Liverpool and London.

“One of things about bell ringing is that it is very much a team effort; everybody is highly dependent on everybody else,” he said. “This leads to a kind of closeness without necessarily a personal familiarity. It’s wonderful to be with a group of people where there is that kind of dependence on each other. I enjoy the company, I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the whole thing.” — by Jason Harris