Q&A: Dr Christopher Crabtree | Livingnorth.com

Q&A: Dr Christopher Crabtree

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Dr Christopher Crabtree
When you hear the charming sound of bells ringing out across the city, do you ever stop to think about who is ringing them? Living North spoke to Dr Christopher Crabtree, who has been the Bell Major at Durham Cathedral since 2013

How did you get into bell-ringing and is it difficult to learn?
Coming from a family of bellringers, it was almost inevitable. I started to learn when I was only five or six, although normally you’d wait until the age of 10 or 11. When learning to ring, I had to stand on several boxes to be able to reach the ropes. Bell-ringing is similar to learning any other musical instrument – no matter how long you’ve been ringing, there are always new challenges, whether it’s visiting different rings of bells or learning new methods.
 
How often do you practise?
The Cathedral ringers practise on Thursday evenings and ring before one or two Sunday services, as well as ringing bells at other Durham churches during the week. Ringing is very enjoyable and we often organise visits to other towers to develop our skills. Over my ringing career, I have rung at well over 1,000 different churches, all around the UK and as far away as Australia. Bell-ringers are a friendly community and you’re welcomed as a visitor wherever you are.
 
What is Christmas like for you?
Christmas is a busy time for bell-ringers across the country – in Durham we ring at the Cathedral on Christmas morning before Matins, but many ringers travel round several of the towers in Durham to ensure all the bells are rung. Our busy period starts with advent carol services in early December.
 
Can anyone learn how to ring bells?
Almost anyone can learn to ring. Like any musical instrument, it takes time to learn the basics but you can then build on these to become more advanced, and then take your new skills off to other towers all around the country, and even across the globe. There are over 6,000 rings of bells in the UK and bell-ringers are always keen to teach anyone interested in finding out more.
 
Do you think Durham will always use bell-ringers rather than a mechanism?
I hope so. Bell-ringing is a combination of music, maths, and physical skill. You could certainly achieve precision with machines but you would lose that human element that always adds recognisable character to any musical performance. Of course, we let the clock look after itself rather than turning up every 15 minutes to chime the hours and quarters!
 
Who are the oldest and youngest members of the group?
The Cathedral Guild has ringers from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, from University students during term-time to long-standing members who have been ringing at the Cathedral for more than 40 years. I think our ages range from 18 to mid-80s. You basically need to be fit enough to climb the 240-step spiral staircase to the Cathedral’s ringing chamber in the central tower (the highest in the UK without a lift). Each year I usually climb about the equivalent of the height of Kilimanjaro in steps.
 
Can you tell us about the bells at Durham Cathedral?
There have been bells in the Cathedral for most of its history, but the first record of bells hung for change ringing as we now know it, were cast and installed in 1693 by the bell-founder Christopher Hodson. He cast the bells in the Cathedral works yard and, while he was in the North East, also cast bells for St Oswald’s church across the river from the Cathedral. Five of the original eight bells remain in use, including the heaviest bell (the ‘tenor’ which weighs 1.4 tonnes) which is named after St Cuthbert, who is buried in the Cathedral.
 
What does the music for bell-ringing look like? Is it a traditional musical score?
Bell-ringing pieces of music are called ‘methods’. Traditional musical notation is really difficult to read in a bell-ringing context as each person has only one note in the scale. Imagine trying to play a fast piece of piano music with one person playing each note on the piano. It would be pretty tricky if you had to pick out your note from the score. Instead, we learn patterns which describe when our bell should sound within a ‘change’. Each bell sounds once in each change and by putting together lots of changes in succession, you get a coherent piece of ringing. Most people would recognise bits of scales and arpeggios hidden within our methods that make it musical.
 
At Lumiere last year, we rang live across all four nights of the light festival as part of the Methods artwork. Sensors on each bell were connected to lights on the exterior and interior of the cathedral so that when we rang, a visual representation was displayed on the cathedral. It was the first time bell-ringing had been done in this way, and was great fun.
 
What are the dynamics like in the bell-ringing group?
Bell-ringers are normally quite a close-knit and friendly group, partly because of how closely we have to work together to create a harmonious piece of music. We need to be very aware of each other when we are ringing and that brings us together. We also enjoy a good pint in the pub after practice!

Published in: November 2018

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