Originally created 12/25/96

Britain issues call for bellringers



LONDON - Needed: Quasimodo.

Or anyone with stamina and a good sense of rhythm.

Britain wants to ring in the millennium with a national peal of bells on Jan. 1, 2000.

The call is going out for 10,000 volunteers to ring the country's 1,200 unused sets of chimes, most of them in churches belonging to the state Church of England. Some have been silent for a century.

The country's 40,000 existing ringers aren't enough for the planned festivities, said Harold Rogers of the Central Council of Church Bellringers, which has overseen the ringing of Britain's 5,000 sets of bells since 1891.

"So in January, we launch the big push to recruit some more, with adverts on TV, radio and in the press," he said.

"Everyone is welcome - you don't have to be a Christian. Our message is that bell ringing is important church work - but it is also a fun hobby and a good way to socialize."

Volunteers will be given accelerated training, starting with lessons in how to control the bells and then ring simple "changes," or sequences. Normally, bell ringing is mastered in six sessions of 1« hours, he said.

Rural counties like Norfolk and Northamptonshire are worst off because they are dotted with remote hamlets, each with its own church and bells - but no ringers.

Many of the unused bells need replacing or restoring, a project the Central Council of Church Bellringers says will cost 6 million pounds ($9.6 million).

The Millennium Commission, which receives money from Britain's highly successful national lottery, announced a grant of $5 million for the Central Council of Church Bellringers in July.

The money will be used to revamp the bells in 100 churches and other buildings across the country.

Mr. Rogers said bell ringers need not be musical, and can be aged from 9 to 90.

"But it does help if they are well coordinated," he added. "Some people take longer than others, but almost anyone can be taught to ring."

Bells have traditionally been rung to call the faithful to worship, to toll the hours and to mark important public events. Although technically, the next thousand years of the calendar don't begin until Jan. 1, 2001, Britain's bell ringers will join with most people in welcoming the millennium with the arrival of 2000.

Chiming bells, which are swung through a short arc using a rope or lever, date from the Middle Ages, and "change ringing" in which the bells of a set are rung in shifting patterns began around the 15th century.

But it was only in the 17th century that British ringers developed a wheel structure that allows a ringer to control a bell as it rotates through 360 degrees - the way bells are rung today.

That means bells weighing up to two tons can be rung without extraordinary strength.

Mr. Rogers has been ringing bells since 1934 and keeps records of the "peals" - 5,000 or more changes without breaks or repeats - that he has rung. Some last more than three hours.

In the 14th century bell tower of All Saints Church by the River Thames at Isleworth in west London, he is training a class of new recruits, including the vicar's 10-year-old daughter.

"In the beginning, it's all about getting control of the bell," said Stef Symak, who has reported to the small bell room each Tuesday for more than three months.

His friend Barbara Jones signed up because she thought bell ringing "would be a nice, historical thing."

"It's great fun. But it's definitely harder than it looks," she said.