Washington’s Bells: Washington National Cathedral

Many exemplary structures rise from the skyline when surveying the cityscape of Washington, D.C., but dominating the hills of upper Northwest sits a neo-gothic masterpiece: The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, or more commonly known to you and me, Washington National Cathedral. Stained-glass windows of richly vivid colors, austere gothic spires, and dramatic flying buttresses create a centuries-old Continental feel that masks its modern construction. The accompanying 301-foot-tall bell tower, completed in 1963 with a façade of Indiana limestone, is the highest point in Washington. Suspended within are two sets of massive bells occupying the equivalent of three double-story floors: two that house the bells and one that suits the ringers. And when the ringers get ringing, the whole city knows.

The Cathedral’s Peal Bells

In 1962, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry of London (the same caster that counts Big Ben and the Liberty Bell among its distinguished contributions) received a rather large new order: a ring of 10 bells in the key of D (tenor 32 cwt) for the top floor of a towering new cathedral in Washington. Installed in 1963 and dedicated in 1964, the “peal bells” range in size from 28 to 55 inches, and from 608 to 3,588 pounds. It takes 10 people pulling heavy ropes from a chamber below (one would assume to protect their hearing) to operate the full set. One person, one rope. Their exhausting work is called change ringing – a form of bell ringing made fashionable in England in the 17th century. It relies on mathematical patterns called “methods,” rather than tuneful melodies, to inform the ringers as to when the rope should next be tugged. It takes roughly two full seconds for a peal bell to ring and be ready to ring again.

Depending on the number of bells employed, the number of permutations (and by extension, the number of sound combinations we hear standing on the ground below) can vary greatly. For instance, a full peal on 10 bells in the tower would consist of 5,040 changes, and would take nearly 3.5 hours to complete. As one might deduce, a full peal is only attempted on special occasions. Here’s another interesting fact: it would take approximately 123 days, ringing continuously day and night, to toll all the possible mathematical permutations on 10 bells. We can’t imagine the neighbors would be too pleased. Today, there are roughly 50 towers dotting across the U.S. with English change ringing bells. The Washington, D.C. metro area boasts four of those: Washington National Cathedral; Old Post Office Tower; Calvary United Methodist Church in Frederick, Md.; and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, VA.

The Cathedral’s Carillon

But that’s not all! Washington National Cathedral is also home to 53 additional bronze bells (manufactured by the John Taylor & Co. Bell Foundry of Loughborough, England) in a separate space beneath the ringers’ room. Together, these comprise the “carillon” – a set of bells played using a specialized automatic mechanism called a clavier, which resembles the keyboard and foot pedals of a piano. The bells suspend 150 feet above the nave floor from a huge rig of I-beams, which we can only guess must be under a lot of stress; Washington National Cathedral’s carillon is the third heaviest in the world. The smallest bell in the carillon weighs a dainty 17 pounds, but the largest (a full 8 feet, 8 inches in diameter) weighs 12 tons. That’s 24,000 pounds!* Each remains stationary while a metal clapper strikes the inside of the casting. The large range of bells allows the carillonneur to play an expanded repertoire of familiar tunes and melodies. 

Want to visit the Washington National Cathedral bell tower?

You can! Washington National Cathedral offers special ticketed "tower climb" tours that include a visit to the bell room. If you’re up for mounting the 333 steps to the ringing chamber (a tour the lasts approximately 75-90 minutes), you’ll be treated to breathtaking, expansive views of Washington, D.C. and the surrounding areas. Just note: those with a fear of heights or enclosed spaces should instead consider a ground tour of the Cathedral, as the tour takes visitors up both enclosed and open metal winding staircases. Infants and young children are not permitted, as there’s a minimum height requirement of 48 inches, or 4 feet, to participate. We also suggest you dress in layers, as the weather conditions are more extreme than at ground level. Ready to start the climb? Grab a ticket and enjoy the rise to dizzying heights!

*To support the massive weight of the bells and bell tower, the entire structure sits on a 48-foot-deep slab of unreinforced concrete. Talk about a strong foundation!