First of all, you need to know that, in order to ring changes on a peel of bells it is necessary to turn each bell upside down. Each bell is attached to a large diameter pulley. A rope runs over the pulley and down to the ringing chamber. With the bell at rest, ie hanging down, there is a considerable extent of rope exposed in this room. Part of the rope is covered in a woolen hand grip called the ‘sally’. By pulling on the sally it is possible to set the bell swinging.
By increasing the downward effort exerted on the sally at each swing, the bell is gradually lifted until, if left unchecked, it would swing right over the top and beginning descending the other side. The beam to which the bell and pulley are attached is furnished with a stay intended to prevent this. Meanwhile, the rope is wound up by the pulley so that, when the bell reaches its inverted position, the amount of rope hanging down in the ringing chamber is much reduced.
With the bell inverted and resting on its stay, pulling the end of this rope sets it swinging in reverse until it rests again on the stay. In this way it is possible, with practice, for the person using the rope to control precisely when the bell rings as the clapper knocks against the side of the bell each time it passes through the bottom of its swing.
If you are with me this far, you might be wondering why go to all this trouble when just gently swinging the bell is all that is needed to get a sound from it? The answer is that, where a number of bells are provided, each tuned to a different note, it becomes possible to play ‘tunes’ by controlling the timing of each ‘dong’.
Now then we come to the matter of change ringing. Church towers in England, Scotland and Wales are usually provided with any number from 4 to 12 bells, generally depending on the ‘seniority’ of the church. Only in a cathedral or minster will you find 12 bells. The most usual number for a parish church is 6 or 8. Suppose then that a tower is equipped with 6 bells, ringing them in sequence plays a scale 1,2,3,4,5,6, where 1 represents the highest note (the treble) and 6 the lowest (the tenor). Endless scales like this (they are called ’rounds’) would quickly become boring both to the listener and to the ringers. So the art of change ringing was developed. Essentially, each bell moves up or down one place each time it is rung:
There are two things to note abut this sequence: each bell traces a diagonal path from first place to last, and each bell stays in first and last place for two rings. Those with a mathematical bent will see that there is still a very strict limit (12) on how many changes can be made before we are back at the beginning unless some change in the pattern is instigated. Such changes in pattern are achieved by means of place holding and ‘dodging’:
Note that 6 holds its position for 4 strokes and 2 holds its position for two strokes then changes its direction of travel. Meanwhile 4 and 5 change places twice before 5 begins its downward diagonal path.
The person in control of each bell has to be aware of these changes of direction. This is achieved in two ways: such patterns have names – the one illustrated above is a ‘bob’. One member of the team is appointed conductor. Various sequences of changes have been composed and, again, named. A common one, at least in my day, was Grandsire. The conductor memorises these compositions. The team agrees they are going to ring a sequence of Grandsire and the conductor calls out ‘bob’ when it is necessary for the bells in 4th and 5th position to change places and the one in third position to mark time then reverse direction.
Changes on 5 bells are referred to as ‘doubles’, those on 6 as ‘minor’ and so on. (I won’t bore you with a list of names for changes on higher numbers of bells, it saves me having to look them up. If you are really interested you can do that yourself!). Most of the time our team rang Grandsire Doubles even though we had 6 bells. This is because a) it’s easier than changing on all six and b) many believe that changes sound better when the last bell is keeping time like a bass drum in the background.
Finally we come to the explanation of ‘peel’, ‘half peel’ and ‘quarter peel’ in this context (as we learned at the start, ‘peel’ is also the group name for a collection of bells in a bell tower). Mathematically the total number of ways of possibly ordering the numbers from 1-5 is 5x4x3x2x1 = 120. So in our practice and our evensong ringing we would ring ‘120 Grandsire Doubles’.
The possible changes on 6 bells, by the same logic, are 720 and on 7, 5040. That number, 5040, is the number by which bell ringers define a peel. A half peel, therefore, is 2520 changes, and a quarter peel – which is what we rang on 17th September 1963, in honour of my marriage the following day – consists of 1260 changes.
Now I can hear you asking, how do you get from 120 to 1260? And the answer is definitely that we did not repeat the original 120 6 1/2 times. You don’t have to think too hard to realise that, by changing the point at which you insert a ‘bob’, there are many ways of sequencing 120 changes on 5 bells. And that is what we did. The hard part is ensuring you arrive back at 1-2-3-4-5 in the right spot!
There is a much clearer explanation of most of the above here, which is where I found the images I’ve used.