Here's the story on how he captured the intricate sounds of the bells and clockwork, spent hours recording in the dark - and even had a go at the surprisingly challenging art of bell-ringing himself:
Written by Chris Richmond
The sound of church bells; the melodious clanging of metal that echoes through the locality on a Sunday morning; you either love it or hate it.
In this day and age where Christianity is no longer the controlling force of the populace, many see this traditional practice as an unnecessary nuisance, but for me the sound has always evoked my curiosity.
As a lover of all things quirky and traditional- especially if they can be recorded to media, it seemed natural for me to get out there with the recorder with the intention of recording church bell sounds.
I live in the North Norfolk countryside, an area rich in medieval churches. While some are quite clearly redundant, many are still used by their communities.
In the towns and more populated villages, many still boast chiming tower clocks and this was my first port of call.
Although it sounds simple, capturing recordings of a chiming church clock is no easy feat and requires a combination of careful planning, patience and potentially a lot of driving.
It also requires a great deal of luck, as there are several uncontrollable factors- wind, rain, traffic noise, and passing members of the public and only one opportunity to get a take in every full hour.
I started recording the striking of a couple of church clocks within a few mile radius of my home- I could just jump in the car, drive for a few minutes before jumping out at the church, set my recorder up on a tripod and wait.
Church bell recording examples from Chris Richmond’s Church Bells of Norfolk SFX library
The waiting always put me on edge- I decided to record in the evenings, where I would less likely be disturbed by passing pedestrians and the volume of traffic was significantly lower.
Luckily any wind blowing during the day would ease off after dusk, which was always a blessing, but all these factors combined meant that the locality was dead quiet- an ideal recording environment until a lone car approaches and passes, leaving a trail of noise behind that lasts several seconds until the car is long in the distance.
It always seemed that the traffic would appear during the final minute before the “dong” of the first chime shatters the silence- making me jump on several occasions.
With the final chime, I then let the recorder run for several seconds afterwards, stopping the recording at an appropriate point long after the diminishing sound of the bell is completely inaudible. Sometimes this ends up extending somewhat when another car passes just after that last chime. It’s unavoidable and a great nuisance, but if you can’t revisit to try again, at least you still have a potentially useable file with a decent tail length to edit.
When I started recording the church clocks slightly further away from home, I would plan a route to capture a few of them. The first thing I learnt was to take a book, as there was plenty of waiting time between the hourly chimes!
My second observation was that every subsequent hour during the evening, the length of the chiming would increase, allowing for longer takes, but at the same time, the traffic and ambient noise would decrease, meaning that the recordings would be potentially cleaner too.
However, in some locations, I did feel a little suspect. A lone young man parking up outside a church in the dead of night makes for easy prey for passing bored local Police officers!
Not every visit has resulted in a successful recording. There was one particular occasion where I stopped off at the coastal village of Brancaster late one night on my way back from a recording session at the town of Kings Lynn. I knew that the church had a tower clock and I had about twenty minutes to wait before the hour strike and it was pitch black.
I waited, and waited, keeping a careful eye on the clock on both my mobile phone and on the car dashboard. Experience had already taught me that there were variations of sometimes several minutes between the striking of each tower clock, but after ten minutes, I gave up.
I drove past the same clock tower a couple of days later during daylight only to learn that the clock had been stopped!
Another church which caught me out was the wonderful St. Mary’s in the heart of the picturesque village of Great Massingham.
One afternoon, I had set up my recording equipment in the churchyard ready to capture the chime with several minutes to wait, recording the bustling ambience of the village as traffic passed and two local school buses stopped to release their respective mobs of hyped-up schoolchildren.
I watched the clock’s hand approach the hour in anticipation of the “dongs” only to watch them pass in silence.
“I’ll give it a few minutes”, I thought, allowing another few minutes until the minute hand was well on its way to five-past-the-hour.
Still, no chimes, and so I stopped the recording, turned everything off and headed back towards the car.
Literally seconds after I’d left the churchyard, the bell began to chime. It was exactly five minutes past the hour.
Literally seconds after I’d left the churchyard, the bell began to chime. It was exactly five minutes past the hour!
After a lovely meal in the village pub, I returned an hour later for a re-take, only to find that yet again, the bell did indeed chime at five-past the hour!
This is the only tower clock I have encountered which does this and can only assume that it’s due to poor maintenance. However, it has also taught me not to cut a recording too short, but to wait a little longer.
There is one church about a fifteen-minute drive away from mine, which has a special place in my memory as it contains a 12-bell carillon- something quite unique here in Norfolk.
This church is that of St. Martin in the tiny village of Glandford, a place I would often visit during my formative years on one of my many cycle rides around the Glaven valley when I lived in the neighbouring village of Blakeney.
I first learnt about the carillon when I stopped to chat to an elderly gentleman who was stood on the footbridge overlooking the ford.
He explained to me that he was waiting for the three o’clock strike because at the strike of every third hour, the bells would play the tune of an old hymn and he had driven down especially to hear it- apparently, he often did, as it played a different tune each day.
I stood there with him and listened as he hummed along to the tune.
After learning of this musical marvel, it fascinated me. I wanted to know how it worked.
Many of my clock chime recording ‘expeditions’ started with a visit to this church- usually aiming to record the six o’clock evening chimes, which was when the carillon was due to play again.
I would always unintentionally leave it tight- bombing down the country lanes anxious not to miss it.
Once I arrived, I would then have to get the recorder out of the back of the car and make a sneaky dash up the churchyard in the pitch black before setting up, hopefully before the start of the Westminster Quarters, which the clock would also chime.
There were occasions where the clock would start chiming as I arrived, but as long as I captured the different tunes played by the carillon, the chimes didn’t matter too much.
Once I arrived, I would then have to get the recorder out of the back of the car and make a sneaky dash up the churchyard in the pitch black
As I started recording church bells, curiosity got the better of me and I sent an email to the local vicar enquiring about perhaps visiting the tower and having a look at the carillon.
I instantly had my doubts given the state of our “red tape” culture but was pleasantly surprised when she replied saying that she had passed my request on to the churchwarden who would be able to accommodate my wishes.
One Thursday morning, I arranged to meet the two churchwardens, Robin Combe and Mick Gill, who let me into the tower to take some recordings. After climbing a tight, dusty spiral staircase, I was faced with a rather cramped clock room with the clockwork ticking away at the far end of the room.
Across the room from the clock was a large, horizontally-mounted metal barrel with dozens of small metal wedges protruding from it. The wedges line up with a row of metal levers mounted in front of the barrel, linked to wire rods coming down from the ceiling.
Each lever corresponds with a hammer that strikes a particular bell, linked by a system of complex wires suspended from the ceiling.
The belfry is actually a separate chamber above the clock room accessed only by a wooden ladder in which I was under strict instruction not to climb.
It was fascinating to watch the clockwork in action, with the occasional clunk, click and sometimes the whirring of an electric motor every so often.
The Westminster quarters would strike every fifteen minutes, each quarter activated by slightly different parts of the mechanism, which led to some interesting recordings.
It was fascinating to watch the clockwork in action, with the occasional clunk, click and sometimes the whirring of an electric motor every so often
I had spent almost an hour in there, studying how everything worked and recording the sounds. After the twelve o’clock strike, the large barrel began to turn, driven slowly by an electric motor.
As the barrel turned, the protruding wedges would slide under each lever, pulling the wire rods and causing the corresponding bell to chime.
Perhaps it is worth noting that this instrument may not be a carillon in the purest sense, as during my further research on this instrument, a true carillon should contain at least 23 bells and is played manually by a carilloneur.
However, the installation at Glandford is something of a uniquity in Norfolk as there are no other such elaborate clock chimes in the County and this one must be regarded as something of a local treasure.
There is, however, a much smaller 12-bell carillon at the Shrine Church in Walsingham, which plays an octave higher by means of an electronic striking mechanism, which has the ability to store hundreds of different tunes without the need of clunky mechanical barrels.
Of course, clock chimes are only a small part of the way church bells are used.
Although some churches only have a few bells used for the purpose of chiming the hours, many churches have specially hung “rings” of multiple bells designed especially for the traditional English craft of bell-ringing.
Operated by long ropes trailing down from the ceiling, these bells are swung through a full circle with the rope turning a large wooden wheel- something of an English concept derived from several hundred years ago.
Prior to my intentions of taking recordings, I had no idea about the technicalities of this seemingly energetic pastime.
I was aware that a few of the churches held practice nights once a week and rang for services on Sunday mornings, but my ignorance had not considered the fact that there was much more to ringing church bells than just getting a group of people together tugging the ropes.
My first useful resource was the website of NDAR- the Norwich Diocesian Association of Ringers. This site helpfully lists the practice nights of every recognised tower in the diocese.
There was a practice session at the nearby town of Holt on Friday that particular week, and seeing as I was off work that evening, decided to discreetly visit the churchyard armed with my recorder to have a listen.
Ringing was due to commence at half-past seven, and so I arrived early.
However, there appeared to be an over-running service happening within the church, which I had not seen scheduled for that evening.
I felt a bit duped that perhaps the ringing had been cancelled, but as the congregation exited the church, a few people said “good evening” as they passed and I plucked up the courage to engage the vicar in conversation as he passed.
“No bells tonight?” I asked.
Those seemed to be the magic words, as he then stated that the ringing was delayed due to the service, but would indeed be happening, so I could wait in the warmth of the porch until Sue Morton, the tower captain arrived.
As we waited in the porch, I was overwhelmed at how welcoming the bell ringers were.
I told them that I was not a ringer, but was interested in observing what they do, and they were intrigued by the fact I was recording them.
The next hour was spent up in the ringing chamber which was quite cramped as eight or so ringers were in attendance plus a couple of guests. The sonic environment was not what I expected either.
You could hear the bells in the chamber above, but their sound was rather dull through the floorboards, with much of the noise coming from the clattering rope guides along with the occasional shout from Sue as she instructed the bell ringers with commands.
As the ringers pulled their ropes down in order, she would periodically shout phrases of bell-ringing jargon that made absolutely no sense to an outsider like me, but the more I watched, the more I learnt and began to pick up what certain terms meant.
A more technical term for English church bell ringing is called “change ringing” and what Sue was doing was calling “changes”.
As the ringers pulled their ropes down in order, she would periodically shout phrases of bell-ringing jargon that made absolutely no sense to an outsider like me
The basis of change ringing is that in each tower, every bell is numbered. “1” is the highest-pitched bell, or “treble” in bell-ringing terms, and as the numbers increase, the bells are lower in pitch, the lowest being called the “tenor”.
At Holt there are eight bells.
The “changes” are when a certain pair of bells switch their order within the sequence.
Usually, a piece of bell-ringing starts and finishes with the bells sounding in numerical order (descending pitch) known as “rounds”.
At the end of each piece of ringing, the bells are stood in their upward position so that they can be controlled to ring on demand during the next piece.
Towards the end of the session, I went back outside to take some recordings of the bells while they were still practicing, and the final piece of ringing consisted of “rounds” getting faster and faster until the tower sounded as if it was resonating with all the combined frequencies of the bells- a truly mesmerising sound. After a while, the striking of the bells became more dynamic and softer until they rang no more. This was soon followed by the nine o’clock chime as the ringers finished and made their way out of the tower back to their cars.
This last piece of ringing is known as “ringing down in peal” and is actually far less magical than it sounds. It is actually more of a necessary technicality than it is music, but I like the sound of it nonetheless.
Because during ringing, the bells are stood facing upwards, they have to be “rung down” at the end of each session so that they don’t pose a threat to anyone’s safety, as if the bells were to accidentally fall from their upward position, a loose rope attached to a freely swinging bell is dangerous for several reasons.
Ringing down consists of gradually decreasing the swing of the bell until it no longer has the momentum to keep swinging and ends up facing downward. There is an art to achieving this in peal, which involves the ringers keeping in the same order throughout and halting their bells at the same time by counteracting the weight of the bell with their body weight on the end of the rope.
Of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without having a go myself!
A few days after my visit to Holt, I went along to another practice night in a different Norfolk town some twenty miles away in Dereham.
This time, I was accompanied by my partner who was looking forward to the nice meal I promised to reward her after a couple of hours of standing outside in the freezing cold.
However, once the ringers arrived at the tower, they invited her up into the ringing chamber, where she had a chance to “learn the ropes”.
I must say, bell ringing is much harder than it looks!
As she was now one step ahead of me, I was itching to have a go and so we both attended a practice night together at our local ringing tower at St. Nicholas’ church, Wells-Next-The-Sea.
The art of bell handling isn’t necessarily in the strength. To set the bell in motion from its upward position doesn’t take alot of effort and once it’s “gone”, the weight of the bell does most of the work.
There are two strokes to learn- the backstroke (holding the ‘tail’ end of the rope) and the handstroke (holding that striped, fluffy elongation known as the “Sally”). My instructor was a wonderfully patient man called Peter, who was very encouraging.
I caught the Sally too early, which resulted in it hovvering for a split second before the rising rope was snatched through my hands, causing it to burn as my arms went flying up towards the ceiling
“You’re a natural ringer”, he said as I somehow seemed to slip into a rhythm and take to the rope quite well.
However, over-confidence got the better of me in my second practice session.
After learning both strokes individually, I put them together and started ringing the bell completely on my own- under close supervision of course. However, I caught the Sally too early, which resulted in it hovvering for a split second before the rising rope was snatched through my hands, causing it to burn as my arms went flying up towards the ceiling.
“Let go! Let go!”
There was a brief panic in the ringing chamber as the rope was flying about, but an experienced ringer soon got it under control.
My technique certainly needed improving, but I have since regained my confidence in the rope and have much improved since then. Bell ringing has become yet another serious hobby aside from sound recording!
One of the best places to get a recording of the bells, I find, is inside the belfry.
As an outsider to the bell ringing community, this wasn’t going to be easy.
The belfry is a dangerous place full of hazards and with many forces at work.
Each belfry is different and the bells weigh anything from a hundred kilograms up to several tonnes.
With all that weight swinging around, this also exerts sideways force onto the tower, a phenomenon known as tower oscilation. As the bells swing, you can often feel movement from below in the ringing chamber.
When coupled with a creaky wooden floor, this is one thing to take into account when placing a microphone in the belfry, as this could give unwanted “handling” noise as the tripod/recorder/microphones vibrate.
Secondly, because of the differences in each belfry, there is no “universal” place to situate recording equipment.
So far, my favourite belfry to record is that of St. Nicholas’ Church in Dereham.
There is alot of headroom above the bells and a wooden staircase leading up to a platform overlooking the bells below.
This is ideal to get a balanced sound of the bells in unison, and also helps eliminate the noise from clattering ropes and pulleys.
Where a platform above is not available, you simply have to choose the most sensible position available- preferably away from an individual bell, as in theory, the closest bell would take prominence in the resulting recording.
However, because of their loudness inside such a confined space, the sound of the other bells reverberate within the flint walls, evening out the sound a little.
Of course, the final point to remember is to turn the gain down!
On my little Zoom H5 recorder, I have to set the gain control on the built-in microphones right down to roughly position 2 (out of 10).
Because of insurance implications, tower captains insist that you leave the belfry and stay under supervision of the other ringers when the bells are being rung, which is fair enough.
Usually, the ringers have breaks between ringing, in which it is easy to ask to go and check on the recorder and make final gain adjustments before letting it run for the remainder of the session. Some towers allow time for the less experienced ringers to practice their bell handling technique, leading to some wonderful isolated recordings of single bells tolling.
Whilst the ringing is in progress, it can help with annotating the recordings if you note down the time and, if possible, the name of the method the ringers are performing- it might all sound the same to you, but this information could make all the difference to that one person looking for a specific sound- especially if they are familiar with bell ringing.
When it comes to editing, the belfry recordings are much easier to manage than exterior recordings- the first problem with the latter being unwanted noise.
My way of editing is not, perhaps, the correct way, but with exterior recordings of church bells, I tend to remove the lower frequencies first- things like wind noise and rumble, which are not within the frequency range of the bells.
If required later, the resulting sound can be added to a soundscape featuring deeper frequencies, but that’s down to personal taste.
Given the limitations of my recording equipment, the other issue is “self-noise”- the dreaded “hiss” generated by recording equipment.
Sometimes it blends in nicely with the breeze rustling through overhead trees, but on a still evening or in the dead of night, it is much more obvious.
Currently I don’t have a satisfactory way of eliminating this. Cutting the high frequencies is certainly not practical, due to the deterioration of the upper harmonics of each bell strike. Therefore the hiss has to remain as a necessary evil. Churchyards are just too quiet at night!