On Saturday I was invited for a behind the scenes tour of the Washington National Cathedral. Kevin, our tour guide, and his son/trusty sidekick, Gus (who couldn’t have been more than 5 years old), took us from the floor, through the rafters, around the roof, and into both bell towers.

A highlight was meeting Edward Nassor, the Cathedral’s carillonneur since 1990. Kevin and Gus took us into the carillon bell tower and we watched Mr. Nassor play the carillon bells for us. (If you're interested, there's a short video of that in my Instagram story Highlights.)

From the Cathedral's website:

The Cathedral’s Kibbey Carillon is the third heaviest in the world. Given by Miss Bessie J. Kibbey in memory of her grandparents, the 53 bronze bells of the carillon were cast at one time and installed in the early 1960s. The carillon was manufactured by the John Taylor Bellfoundry of Loughborough, England, and dedicated on September 22, 1963.

The smallest bell of the carillon weighs 17 pounds. The largest weighs 24,000 pounds, or 12 tons, and measures eight feet, eight inches in diameter. The carillon is played via a keyboard and pedals, situated high in the Cathedral’s central tower (150 feet above the nave floor) and directly amid the bells. The keyboard controls a mechanical tracker system (similar to a tracker organ) that uses transmission wires to move the clappers. The bells remain stationary while a metal clapper strikes the inside of the casting.

We then went up another level to the peal bell ringing chamber where a group of new ringers were being trained.

From the Cathedral's website:

In a chamber above the Cathedral’s carillon, high up in the Gloria in Excelsis tower, resides a 10-bell peal set for change ringing, a form of bell ringing begun in England in the 17th century. Cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry of London in the 1960s and installed in 1963, each bell bears an inscription. The bells vary in diameter from 28 inches to 55 inches and in weight from 608 pounds to 3,588 pounds.

Peal bells play mathematical patterns, not melodic music, because peal bells cannot play a rhythm. It takes two seconds for a peal bell to ring and be ready to ring again. The casting rotates to strike the clapper, and the bells are played by pulling ropes.

The bells are rung by a band of ringers, one person to a bell. To protect their hearing, the ringers stand in a separate room beneath the bells and ring the bells using ropes. Ringers play patterns of notes called “methods,” which are more mathematical than tuneful. Each of the Cathedral’s bells can be rung approximately once every two seconds, allowing for the rotation of the bell from mouth-up through mouth-down and back to mouth-up position. A “peal” is a complete set of changes (switches in order of the bells) on a given number of bells. To illustrate, here is an example of the simplest four-bell method of change ringing, called “Plain Hunt.” The bells are numbered according to their pitch, with the highest bell (or “treble”) being number 1 and the lowest (or “tenor”) being number 4:

A quarter peal on six bells, consisting of 1260 changes, takes approximately 45 minutes; ringers may not take breaks or switch off. A full peal on all 10 bells, consisting of 5,040 changes, would take about 3 hours 25 min and are attempted for special occasions such as Easter. To ring all the possible mathematical permutations on 10 bells would take approximately 123 days, ringing day and night.

Then back down the bell tower, into the attic, and out into the gutter that runs along the length of the choir and apse. (I'm pretty sure those are the right architectural terms but if I've gotten it mixed up someone please feel free to let me know in the comments.)

Then back down the length of the nave and out between the front two towers to see some of the details, gargoyles, and grotesques up close!

And then Kevin concluded the tour and let us roam freely through the main, public parts of the Cathedral where I photographed the nave and façade before heading home.

The Cathedral offers a wide variety of specialty tours which focus on different aspects of the structure. Visit cathedral.org/what-to-do/tours/ to learn more.

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