Alan Regim spends his vacations not on a beach or at a resort, but touring the bell towers of the American South. Six hours a day are spent in the towers, with eight or more fellow Englishmen and women, and 5.6 tons of bronze bells swinging overhead.
There are no bathroom breaks.
“We are all members of the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths, founded in 1747,” said Regim, a 51-year-old London resident.
They are all change ringers, a term used for a style of English bell ringing that produces no melody, but a series of precise mathematical sequences called “changes.”
On Wednesday, the group stopped at Church of the Good Shepherd in Augusta. The group played in Marietta, Ga., before traveling to Augusta and will continue on to Charleston, S.C. But first, they’ll attempt the first of four performances called “peals.”
“For one full peal, the bells have to change places more than 5,000 times,” said the Rev. Robert Fain, the rector of the Episcopal church at 2230 Walton Way. “It really takes a sharp mind to keep up.”
Eight people are needed to play the bells at Good Shepherd. Each ringer applies precise amounts of force using a rope that causes the bell to swing a full 360 degrees. The sound is richer and fuller than bells that are chimed with hammers.
“It’s a graceful kind of exercise rather than a brute show of strength,” Regim said. “There’s a challenge. Yet, it’s not difficult. It’s a team game. That’s the lovely thing about it.”
Regim learned change ringing when he was just 10 years old. He’s done at least 20 similar tours in the United States over the past 20 years. The vast majority of change ringing is still done in England, but Regim says it’s become more popular in other places.
The North American Guild for Change Ringers counts more than 5,000 towers in England alone. In contrast, Regim said there were just 35 bell towers for change ringing when he first traveled to the United States in 1992. Now, there are at least 51.
“There are new towers being built in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s exciting to see them. Wherever you go in the world, if they have a bell tower, you can have something in common.”
Good Shepherd is one such church, having dedicated its ring of eight bells in October 2004. The bells were cast at the famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry, a London company that made both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
“In a way, we’re coming to visit our bells,” Regim said with a laugh.
The bells hang in a 73-foot tour at the back of the church property and weigh, in all, 5.6 tons.
Each is named for a biblical figure. Rachel, Leah, Rebekah and Sarah are the four smaller bells, while Matthew, Mark and Luke are larger, with John being the largest.
“The heaviest bell is 1,246 pounds, but a youngster can manage it once you get it going,” Fain said. “It’s all about the momentum of the bells. They get going and the sound is just fantastic. It’s really something special.”