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St Mary and St Nicolas

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The Church Bells

St Mary's has a ring of eight bells in the tower plus a Sanctus bell in a turret, and St Nicolas's has a single bell.



Service ringing

For all 11am Sunday Eucharist services, most 6.30pm Sunday services, major midweek festivals and many weddings in St. Mary's the tower bells are rung; the Sanctus bell is usually chimed to signal the Consecration in morning Eucharist, to signal the Angelus at evening service and as a bidding bell before 8am Sunday Eucharist and most midweek services. The St.Nicolas's bell is chimed for most services.


Practice night at St. Mary's is Tuesday, 7.30 - 9.00 and both visiting ringers and interested non-ringers are welcome to join us. Several ringers from neighbouring towers or from churches with no bells of their own join us regularly. About twice a month there is a joint practice for all the ringers in the Cheltenham area, which St Mary's hosts two or three times a year, sometimes replacing regular Tuesday practice, sometimes as well.

History of the St Mary's Bells

Nothing seems to be known of the history of the Sanctus bell, but the heaviest six tower bells were cast in 1748, probably using the metal of the earlier ring, the fifth of which "being broke". The two lightest bells were first added in 1886 and recast in 1996.

Why don't we ring hymn tunes?

It was realised about 1600 that attaching the bell to a complete wheel and swinging it through nearly 360 degrees so that the bell and clapper strike with both in motion gives a better sound than merely swinging the clapper ("chiming") or hitting the bell from outside with a hammer ("clocking"). On the other hand half a ton or so of swinging metal cannot be stopped and started at will, so normal tunes cannot be played.

So what music do we ring?

All that can reliably be done is to advance or delay a bell so that it overtakes or falls behind  the next bell in sequence, so tower bell music consists of all bells ringing in turn but in slightly differing orders. Originally the conductor would call out whenever a change in the order of ringing was to take place, but in the mid 17th century "method ringing" arose, where a pattern of dozens or hundreds of changes has a single name and the conductor need only intervene when special alterations to the basic pattern are to be made. Both "call changes" and "method ringing" are rung at St Mary's and most towers.

What is a peal?

From both the listener's and ringer's point of view a "peal" is about three hours of continuous ringing. From the composer's and conductor's points of view it is 5040 different orderings of the bells. Such a feat is attempted at St. Mary's about twice a year to mark some major occasion or just to test the ringers' skill and stamina. A recent attempt in honour of the Queen Mother's 100th birthday was unfortunately unsuccessful after two hours.

The arithmetically-minded reader will have spotted that 5040 is the total number of different possible orders of seven bells. Seven bell towers are few or none, but in the late 18th century - before ball bearings were in use - the heaviest bell or "tenor" usually stayed in last place, providing a beat, while the seven lighter bells changed places. With modern equipment it is now equally usual for all eight bells to change places.

What is rung for services?

A so-called quarter peal, a performance lasting about 45 minutes, is of more suitable length for service ringing, and one is attempted before evening service roughly every other Sunday and occasionally after weddings. But this only allows up to eight ringers to perform and we have considerably more ringers available. In any case, not all have the experience and stamina for a quarter peal. So we take in turns who shall take part in the quarter peals and a number of shorter "touches" are rung for morning Eucharist, the remaining evening services and most weddings, still adding up to 30 - 45 minutes, but allowing all the ringers present to have a turn before a single service.

Anthony Smith


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The Parochial Church Council of the Ecclesiastical Parish of St Mary and St Nicolas Prestbury Cheltenham - Registered Charity No 1130933

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Last modified: 06 June 2015