Millennium Peal: Time to ring in the new

It's taken 40,000 people four years to prepare for the performance of the century on 1 January
Bells have marked the rhythm of our national life for centuries. Before the television, the radio, or the telephone, the distinctive peal of English church bells was a way of spreading news across the countryside and through the city. Besides calling the faithful to worship, in the days when churchgoing was universal, bells were used to raise the alarm, ring out good news or expressive collective sorrow.

Now that so many of us no longer believe in the old certainties, it would be easy to assume that bells, too, are all clapped out. But the opposite is true. As we look to the future, and prepare to enter a different age, bells are once again at the centre of our celebrations.

Big Ben must chime on the stroke of midnight before we all get to sing "Auld Lang Syne". Many other peals will ring out then too, as people kiss, or dance, or toast the new millennium.

Then, on New Year's Day, over 90 per cent of all the public bells in the country will be rung simultaneously at noon. This has never been done on such a scale before, not even in times of war or the death of a monarch. Making it happen has cost millions, and meant recruiting thousands of new ringers - although not nearly as many as are needed have come forward.

It was in July 1996 that the Millennium Commission announced a grant of pounds 3m to provide new or restored bells in 100 churches, so that they could mark the arrival of the new century. "Church bells ringing out across the country are part of our national heritage," said the Commission's chairman at the time, the then Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley.

Her idea was that the bells should be struck at midnight on New Year's Eve - but ringers like a party as much as anyone, and although many may be in bell towers on the night, others will prefer linking arms on the dance floor. So the Open Churches Trust came forward with an alternative plan, which shifted the focus to noon the next day.

It has cost pounds 6 million to prepare the nation's bells for that moment, with the Commission's grant having been matched by churches and other charities. The money stretched to pay for 145 projects in all, including a completely new ring of 10 for Carlisle Cathedral at a cost of pounds 80,000. Other bells were restored after having been silent for 100 years or more.

As these good works were in progress at specialist bell casters and repairers, one serious problem remained: who was going to ring the things once they were in place? When Mrs Bottomley made her announcement there were 40,000 ringers - at least 10,000 fewer than was needed, according to some experts.

"If you count all the ringers in the country and count all the bells, we already had enough people," said John Anderson, president of the Central Council for Bell Ringers, taking the optimistic view. "Unfortunately, they weren't all in the right place."

Surprisingly, the number of bell ringers has not changed much since the turn of the last century, although their distribution has, with a drift towards the city that has left country churches short of hands. Normally ringers manage by travelling from parish to parish, but a call to ring simultaneously made that impossible.

The shortage remains. Despite an intensive recruiting drive by ringing societies around the country, only 5,000 have come forward for training, which can take up to two years. It involves indoctrination into an ancient circle with its own language and hierarchy as laid out on the pages of the weekly journal, the Ringing World, which are full of impenetrable lists: of new recruits, peals rung, and unusual ringing patterns with names like Freezywater Delight Major.

For a glimpse into this arcane world I passed through an iron gate marked "no unauthorised access" on a freezing night, and round to the back of the empty church of St James, Prebend Street, in Islington, north London. Just one light was on, at the foot of the tower. A grey-haired lady beckoned me to follow her up a narrow, circular stone staircase, past a platform overlooking the huge pipes of the church organ, on to a wooden ladder, and finally through a trapdoor.

The bell tower was small and cold, a single electric heater struggling against the high ceiling and stone walls, which had purple egg boxes stuck on them to absorb some of the sound. Six ropes disappeared into a wooden platform that hid the bells from sight. Four women and two men stood in a circle, each with both hands on the red, white and blue rope grips, called sallies.

"Look to," said an assertive lady in grey slacks, who turned out to be the leader of the circle, the tower captain. "Treble's going." The rope was pulled down, firmly and smoothly. "She's gone."

Within seconds the ropes were flying, in an apparently random sequence that seemed to have very little to do with the sound coming from above our heads. The bells rang down a scale, accurately and rhythmically, from the lightest and highest to the tenor, a quarter of a ton of copper and tin swinging on an iron frame as the rope wound around a wheel. These were relatively small bells - the largest can weigh four tons. Below, the activity around me was incomprehensible.

"Let off a little rope, Peter... you're pulling too long, Clive. Who's clashing? Peter, you're over the treble."

The bells sounded glorious to my untutored ear, but the tower captain was not happy. "Oh dear. Nobody could have possibly thought that was worth listening to. Sorry to be rude to you all, but it's true." The proposed cure was a brisk round of training exercises. "Two whole pulls and we'll stand on the hand-stroke."

They seemed to know what she meant. "It's not a craft, it's a mystery," said one of the six, the journalist and broadcaster Peter Day, who was still learning the lingo as well as the ropes. "Each step seems utterly impossible until you master it - and then they gleefully reveal that there's another level that nobody had mentioned before. It's like Scientology."

The hardest thing at first was being able to differentiate between the chimes, said Sister Margaret, a nun in her early sixties. Learning to control the bell and rope takes about eight weeks, including developing the ability to hear your own bell and adjust its timing to keep the rhythm. "Then it suddenly clicks, like getting to know birdsong - at first it's just a jumble, then you hear the lark."

Sister Margaret started learning to ring at Easter. "I had no contact with it before, except the memory of a single bell tolling at funerals in my youth. The millennium was what gave me the push. I took it up so that I could ring in the new century. It was the romance of the idea that attracted me, the feeling of pursuing an ancient English tradition: Thomas Hardy and all that."

The Central Council evokes such associations in its own publicity materials, quoting John Betjeman, author of the verse autobiography Summoned by Bells. "I make no apology for writing so much about church bells. They ring through our literature, as they do over our meadows and roofs and few remaining elms. Some may hate them for their melancholy, but they dislike them chiefly, I think, because they are reminders of Eternity. In an age of faith they were messengers of consolation."

The next step after bell control is learning the complex music-by-numbers that is English change-ringing, a technique that developed in the 17th century and is almost completely unique to the British Isles, apart from a few enthusiasts in the former colonies. On the shelf in the bell tower, next to a silver trophy, was a little red book full of numerical patterns.

There are 720 possible sequences for six bells, and ringing them in turn takes 20 minutes. Add just two more bells and the number of variations rises to 40,320, which takes up to 20 hours to ring. And on a set of 12 bells there are more than 479 million possibilities, which would take nearly 40 years, if it were ever done.

As if learning the patterns by rote wasn't hard enough, the team at St James rang changes shouted by the captain, like a fast and dazzling variation on a playground game. Prudence Fay, one of the more experienced ringers in the tower, explained that precision was everything. "An error of a thirtieth of a second is very noticeable. You have to get to the stage where you know by instinct where to go."

There is far more at stake than just a pretty noise, according to John Anderson of the Central Council. "There are safety issues. We are talking about several hundredweight of metal rotating through 360 degrees. If things do go wrong, that sort of momentum can cause serious damage."

Or, as one of the ringers at St James put it, "If the stay breaks and the bell keeps spinning round, you go 10 feet up in the air on the end of the rope, and have a proper fall."

Normally, though, bell-ringing is good for you, insisted Mr Anderson. "It stretches the spine, and works the calf muscles. Your shoulders and arms become stronger, and balance improves."

Many of those who took up ringing in the run-up to the millennium were actually returning to it, he said, having learnt in their youth. "There are atheists and agnostics, but most bell ringers are practising Christians."

Those people see bell-ringing as an act of witness to their faith; but to the rest of us it is a nostalgic sound, the natural aural accompaniment to cricket on the village green. "A lawnmower company did a survey to find out what people like to hear," said John Anderson. "Top of the list was bells - followed by the dawn chorus."