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Learning bell ringing

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Inside one of over 4000 bell towers. Bells rung by volunteer bell ringers. In this tower the bells are mounted on a modern steel frame, but still use 400 year old ringing technology.
Inside one of over 4000 bell towers. Bells rung by volunteer bell ringers. In this tower the bells are mounted on a modern steel frame, but still use 400 year old ringing technology.

It’s not often you come across something which at the outset seems to tick all the boxes and the reality meets those expectations. Bell ringing should be at the top of any retired person’s list of things to do.

Any retired person should look for opportunities that are mentally engaging, physically active but stress free and offer an almost unlimited prospect of future challenges – but above all have social networking benefits.

Shortly after retiring I started to become interested in bell ringing, after an invitation to explore the tower of one of our local churches.  That lead on to talking about bells and before too long I was persuaded to pull on a rope.

Our local tower has 8 bells. Each bell is firmly attached at its crown, via a headstock, to an axle, which in turn is attached to a large wheel.  A rope is attached to the wheel and hangs down to a room underneath where the bell ringers ring the bells by pulling on the rope.

The bell starts off in the “up” position.  This means that the mouth is facing the heavens and the bell is prevented from falling backwards from just beyond its balance point by a wooden stay. The ringer pulls the rope, the wheel starts to turn and the bell passes up and through the point of no return.  At this point the bell takes over. Bells typically weigh in at give or take half a ton, so the ringer has no chance whatsoever to impede its inevitable downward path, even if there were any mechanism to enable him to do so.

The whole apparatus swings through an arc of almost 360 degrees, and as gravity starts to take over, the bell slows down, the clapper catches up, and the bell rings.  As perpetual motion has yet to be invented, and certainly was not around 400 years ago when this apparatus was devised, the bell starts to swing down again because its momentum is now insufficient to take it up to the point of balance.  So once again the bell has taken over, completes another swing and rings again. Eventually, if left to its own devices the bell will come to rest with the mouth pointing down.

However, the circle of ringers down below have not been inactive. As the bell begins its downward path, the bell-ringer pulls gently and smoothly as the rope comes down, so that just sufficient force is added to bring the bell up towards the balance point at the end of its swing.  Then as the bell goes into reverse and starts to come down again, the bell-ringer again pulls steadily on the rope to take the bell up almost to the point of balance where it started and so on.

However, if the bell ringer has not applied sufficient weight to the rope on the way down, the bell will not reach the point of balance on the other side. If the ringer pulls too hard, the bell will go beyond the point of balance, and in the worst case go crashing through the wooden stay and complete another circle.

To stop ringing the ringers have to “stand” the bells so they don’t come down again.  This means that the final pull on the rope has to be that little bit firmer, so that the bell rises up and just beyond the point of balance and comes gently to rest against the stay.  Too little and the bell will not swing beyond the point of balance.  A little too much and the bell will bounce gently off the stay, back through the point of balance and away it goes again. In either case an embarrassing solo until the bell final comes to rest. Pull even harder and the bell may break the stay.

Of course ringers do not ring alone, and the objective is for all the bells to ring in sequence. So timing is critical. Sometimes the ringers have to ring faster, which means the bell doesn’t quite end its swing, other times the ringer has to pause the bell on its balance point to enable another bell to ring through.

To cut a long story short, ringers say it takes between 6,000 and 10,000 pulls to learn to pull a bell rope with any competence.  So it could take between 6 and 12 months of practice. It all comes down to timing and technique.

That will not be the end of the learning process. After learning to ring rounds (i.e. the bells ringing consecutively down the scale), beginners move on to change ringing and then methods, which is when everything becomes a lot more interesting. The ultimate goal of bell ringing is to ring a full peal, which would take over 3 hours of continuous rining.

The ringers in many bands range in age between early twenties and well into retirement.  At least half our women (or men if you prefer).  After Wednesday evening practice there is normally a follow on meeting down at the local pub. Ringing is a gentle and practical form of aerobics without the sweat, and physically there is no reason why a competent ringer should not be able to carry on bell ringing as long as he/she can stand upright. And it doesn’t cost a penny.

To find out more go to the bell ringers’ own website. There is no shortage of other learning resources such as John Harrison’s and you can also download computer programmes to simulate ringing.

You will be well received. There are over 40,000 bell ringers in the UK and over 5,000 active towers. Social events are organised at local, district and national levels. Ringers like to “collect” towers and it is not unusual for a guest ringer to appear on practice nights.  It is even possible to visit some of the great national ringing centres such as St Paul’s in London.  For that you would have to book, and if you want to ring, be able to demonstrate you are top of the game!

In the meantime, why not phone your local tower captain and ask for a tour. Your local parish council will have all the contact details you need.

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