First posted: 11 April 2024

Bobs only Stedman Triples Peal

Andrew Johnson was a well known composer, primarily because of his composition used for the first ever peal of Stedman Triples without the use of Singles, in January 1995. A year or two earlier it was not known if it was possible to have a Bobs-only peal of Stedman Triples. Searching for one, of a proof of its impossibility, was an active area of research for bellringing composers and mathematicians. The computer power of the day was insufficient to prove it by brute force. Another composition was discovered before Andrew came up with his, but Andrew's composition was the first successfully called.

Peal band outside church
The peal band. Peter Harrison second from the right.

The peal at Burwood on Saturday April 6 2024 was first thought of two months earlier. My sister, Michelle Harrison, told me that Andrew Johnson's cancer was back, and they decided against treatment. I had met, and stayed with, Andrew and his wife Theo when Michelle and Matthew Sorell were visiting Europe in 2002/03. We stayed at their place on New Year's Eve and rang in the New Year at Winchester Cathedral. In fact, Andrew had a little peal board commemorating the peal rung in January 1995 in the smallest room in his house. When I asked him why the peal board was there he replied that it was the one room that everyone went to when they visited, so they'd always see it.

When Matthew heard about Andrew's health he suggested that a planned QP of Stedman Triples at St Peter's Cathedral, Adelaide should be called with one of his compositions. Fortunately, QPs of bob-only Stedman Triples are far easier than a peal. I found a nice composition to call and my niece, Charlotte Sorell, rang the tenor for a QP for the first time as part of her birthday celebrations. Afterwards Matthew said that we should ring a peal of Bobs-only Stedman Triples in memory of Andrew, when the time came. Unfortunately it was only a couple of weeks later that the news came through that Andrew had passed away. But the seed had been planted in my head, and I decided to go for it.

Andrew came up with a number of Stedman Triples compositions with Bobs-only, so it was a matter of finding one I was "comfortable" in calling. I decided against the original one-part. I just don't have the brain space for that. Then I saw some three-part compositions that were exact three-parts (so no “do this in Part 1 and that in Parts 2 and 3) and I thought that one of them would do. I didn't know at the time, but the one I chose was a transposition of the original three-part. In the original composition the 7 is “observation”, but the one I chose had the treble as “observation”. The main reason for my choice is there were some blinding obvious check points. After the first part Queens comes up; after the second part Tittums comes up; and after the third part you get rounds. For those not familiar with any sort of exact three-part touch of Triples if you get Queens at the end of the first part you always get Tittums at the end of the second part, and obviously rounds at the end of the third part. While it was a risky strategy to have one third of a peal between marker points, the whole thing was risky – so why not!

The next thing was to learn it. I paid close attention to the courses. The bonus was they were all 10 sixes long. Then I noticed one course was used a number of times. I looked at which courses were repeated in a part, and which ones were only called once per part. To distinguish them, I gave the repeated courses letters a-f, and numbered the unique courses 1-9. Seeing them written out I was able to break each part into bite-sized blocks: ab1cc, d2cc, 3cc, 4b5, 6e7e, fab, 89cc, df. That's all well and good, but what did it all mean? I had to learn what each letter and number meant, and that took a long time. I did it in bits and pieces. As there were only six letters I learned them first, and then started to do a number every day or so. I found that some numbers were very similar to others, and one number was similar to another letter, so I really had to make sure I called the right one at the right time! Also, some of the courses had 8 or 9 calls out of the 10 sixes, so I learned them as “NOT x” or “NOT y and z”. This actually helped with some of the letters as I found a pattern that flowed for me. I didn't mind if it made no sense to anyone else – I was the one calling it! See the detail of the composition here.

As I said, the treble was "observation" but in quotation marks. The reason for the quotes is that the treble was not doing its quick work at the start of each course all the time. But I found out the pattern for this: if I found myself out doing a 6/7 up dodge at the end of a course then I knew I was starting two "c" courses (as I called them). The first "c" course put me back at the front at the course end, and then the second one pushed me out to 6/7 down at the second course end. After those two "c" courses I knew I had to get to the front again so there was ALWAYS a bob at 1 and a plain at 2. After that – get the calling right for that course!

I had copies of the peal EVERYWHERE! I had a copy of it on my desk at work. I had a copy of it on my desk at home. I had it on my phone so I could check it whenever I wanted. I had a copy of it written on the whiteboard at St Mary's Cathedral so I could test myself (which I did occasionally do when covering and I got someone else to call a touch). This was a big job and it needed a lot of homework. If only I studied this hard at Uni...

In the days leading up to the peal I knew I knew the composition. I made a point of getting to St Mary's Cathedral early on practice night while some handling lessons take place. I fired up Virtual Belfry and used a foot pedal to put the bobs in while ringing a bell with headphones on so I didn't annoy those having a handling lesson. It was as close to practicing for the peal in real life I could get. Sometimes my bell dropped when I looked at the foot pedal to call a bob and once I accidentally pressed the “Rounds button” instead of calling a "Bob". However, just ringing the first 5 courses was a huge insight as to what was going to happen during the real thing. I tried to have a normal night on Friday night and not get too wound up, but I didn't sleep well and a morning coffee was definitely required before the attempt.

The band was agreed to weeks before the attempt. However, Jenny Davies (who had nominated to cover) had to drop out because a netball game she was in was given an early start, and she couldn't do both – especially if we required a restart for any reason. Rather than cause anxiety, she suggested that she could be replaced with the new Burwood Ringing Master, Rob Weatherby Jnr. A couple of days after organising this swap I got another message from Jenny – she had Covid and was never going to ring in the attempt! At least I didn't have to find another ringer with a couple of days notice. At that point I decided I should place the band in advance, so everyone knew what they were walking in to and there were no unpleasant surprises. Mind you, given the bells at Burwood it's hard to have an unpleasant surprise!

On the day we turned up, turned the bells over to check rope lengths and I asked people to help each other out if needed. Fortunately there was no real need of that as everyone was on their game and stayed right. If there was a trip, it was literally only for one blow. It was just down to the bloke on the treble to make 603 calls out of a possible 840 calling positions. I don't mind admitting I was anxious about the peal. I was nervous in the lead up. I just had to make sure I concentrated throughout the whole thing. Calling things like Surprise you can usually get away with a late call. But with a call every 6 blows, Stedman can blow up at a moment's notice. I've seen Stedman ringing go from “oh, isn't this lovely” to a trip to a fire up to “stand” in a few whole pulls. Thank goodness that didn't happen on the day. The ringing was of a very good quality throughout.

The other thing was reciting the composition. When I was going through it in my head I could go "1,2,4,6,7,8,9. 2,3,6,7,8,9..." in quick succession. But with a peal it takes about 3 hours to ring it rather than the 10 minutes to recite it. So I had to slow my thinking, and also concentrate on the course I was in. Sometimes I was thinking "what is course 6 again?" when it was 2.5 courses away. After I had answered my own question I then asked myself, "which course am I in now? Oh yes, this is 'b'." It was too easy to race away. I had to keep concentrating on where the peal was and not where it was going. But by far and away the most difficult thing were the "c" courses when I was at the back for 7 bobs in a row. I had to make sure I called 6 bobs, not 5 and not 7. There was only one occasion where one of them was late, and after that I decided to stop looking at extra hint points and count the six and which dodge I was doing EVERY hand-stroke. With all of this going on, occasionally, when I got to the end of a block, I audibly exhaled to de-stress as I started the next block of calls. A couple of people mentioned afterwards they heard me exhale and I told them the truth.

This was the hardest thing I've ever called, and could well be the hardest thing I do ever call. I spent a huge amount of time learning my leads for the peal of ORABS which was a serious amount of studying, but this was the next level. After we scored the peal and before I had called "Stand" Andrew Davies, next to me, tapped me on the shoulder and said "well done." When we were having a discussion (including about the exhaling) Tom Perrins queried if anyone had called that composition before because "no one's that stupid". Well, according to CompLib there are a few other stupid people out there. But it's the first time in 29 years a bob-only peal of Stedman has been rung in Australia. The previous time was called by Bill Perrins, who called the 10-part composition in 1995.

As I said on the day, my thanks to the band (and Jenny) for agreeing to ring in this silly (and risky) idea that was planted in my head, and for ringing so well on the day.

Peter Harrison
11 April 2024

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