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All About Quarter Peals

First published in July 2013.

Once or twice a month, before Sunday evening services, Keynsham Church Bell Ringers and friends meet to continue our local custom of attempting a Quarter Peal on the bells of St John's church. You might have read about them in the Notice Sheet, or seen our whiteboard in church beside the door to the tower. But just what is a Quarter Peal, and why do we make such a fuss about telling everyone whenever we ring one?

Change-ringing and "methods"

To explain Quarter Peals, we first need a bit of background in change-ringing in general.

Whenever we begin a piece of ringing we always start with a descending scale from the highest note – the smallest or Treble bell, always numbered "1" – to the lowest note – the Tenor bell. This is called ringing Rounds. From the bell ringers' perspective, each ringer pulls their bell's rope after the person to their right has pulled theirs.

Ringing Rounds can get pretty boring after a while, so to spice things up we might swap adjacent pairs of bells, one pair at a time. This is known as Call-Changes, as each instruction to change from one sequence (or row) to another is called out by the Conductor. For example:

From Rounds – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 – the Conductor calls "6 to 7"
which gives us – 1 2 3 4 5 7 6 8 – swapping bells 6 and 7.

By swapping pairs of bells in this way many particularly musical rows can be obtained. One popular row, called Queen's, comprises all the odd-numbered bells followed by all the even-numbered bells: 1 3 5 7 2 4 6 8.

Diagram of the first two leads of Grandsire TriplesAbout 350 years ago, the pioneers of change-ringing developed methods. These are patterns that determine how one or more pairs of bells should swap between rows without the Conductor having to call every change. The diagram to the right shows the first two leads (basically a set of changes at the end of which the Treble bell returns to its home position) of a very old method called Grandsire Triples. This method has two hunt bells (numbered 1 and 2) and five working bells (numbered 3 to 7), and is normally rung with a covering Tenor (number 8, not shown here but always last in the row). Ringers learn the blue line, shown here following the path of bell 3 but in fact the same for all the working bells, with each working bell beginning its path at a different point on that line.

So what is a Quarter Peal?

As you can see, each lead of Grandsire Triples has fourteen rows, so to ring one complete lead the bells must make fourteen changes. In this method the bells return to Rounds after five leads, or 70 changes.

To extend the method the Conductor will call a combination of Bobs and Singles which alter the paths of the bells at the end of a lead. The maximum number of changes possible (known as the extent) on seven bells is 5,040 which takes about three hours to ring and is called a Peal. Mathematically speaking this number is seven factorial (written as "7!"), or all the numbers from one to seven multiplied together. The extent on any number of bells can be similarly calculated – on eight bells the extent is 40,320 which takes about 24 hours to ring, a feat which has only been achieved a handful of times.

For less important occasions a Quarter Peal of 1,260 changes is both more appropriate and more popular, particularly for less experienced bands of ringers, taking around 45 minutes to ring. Peal and Quarter Peal attempts are not always successful as they require intense concentration and physical endurance, so it's quite an achievement when we complete one and a cause for celebration when someone rings their first one.