Church bells are pretty substantial chunks of metal. St James’s Cardington has eight bells - the treble (no 1), the lightest bell with the highest note, weighs 224 kg (well over 4 cwt) and the tenor (no 8), the heaviest with the lowest note, weighs 358 kg (over 7 cwt). This is actually quite light compared with some churches - the tenor at Hereford Cathedral weighs in at about 1 ¾ tons and there are several around at over 2 tons.
The bells are rung by swinging them from the very top of their stroke with the bell upside down and up in the air, through a full circle until they are again upside down in the opposite direction, and then back again. The bells can be stopped at the top (set) by taking them just beyond top dead centre where they then rest on a stop. This stop, known as the slider, is movable to allow this to happen in either direction - it can be seen in the diagrams, just below the wheel. It is this part of the cycle, where the bell is hardly moving and can even be stopped, which allows the ringing to be controlled.
|Above - bell down, no ringing
Centre - bell set, hand-stroke
Right - bell set, back-stroke
The bellringer makes the bell do what he wants by making small adjustments as it approaches and then moves away from the top of the stroke. The bit in between is done by gravity and during this the bellringer, though he uses the rope to feel what the bell is doing as much as he can, makes sure that he does not get involved while the rope speeds past his nose with a large amount of energy attached to it up above.
When not being rung the bells are left down (for safety reasons) so the first thing to be done before a session of ringing is to get them up. This involves gradually swinging them more and more and more until they are fully up, quite hard work on the larger bells - the Hereford tenor needs two men working flat out for several minutes to get it up. At the end of the session they have to be brought down, again a gradual process.
The most basic sequence is to ring rounds - down the scale 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 then repeat. This soon gets boring so the order might then be altered by two bells changing places. For example, 2 and 3 might swap making the order 1 3 2 4 5 6 7 8. To do this no 3 must ring fast and no 2 slowly for one stroke. The bells never move by more than one position at a time as it would be impossible, due to its momentum, for the bell that needs to speed up to go fast enough.
The ringers all need to know what is happening and what is about to happen. There are two ways of achieving this: “call changing” and “method ringing”. The first involves someone conducting the proceedings by calling out blow-by-blow instructions. The second requires all the ringers to know a set of rules which defines the sequence to be followed. The simplest of these, known as “plain hunting”, involves odd numbered bells moving one step at a time out to the back (position 8 if 8 bells are involved) and then turning round and moving to the front (position 1), then turn again, etc. The even numbered bells do the same thing but start by moving towards the front, so each bell meets (ie rings next to) every other bell at some point in the cycle.
This takes quite a long time to learn but once you can do it, like riding a bike, you will never lose it. It is quite hair-raising to start with - you can’t practice in slow motion, the bell is either going or it isn’t. There will always be an experienced ringer standing with a learner ready to take over if any help is needed, and this is bound to happen in the early stages.
A major aim in bellringing is to achieve “good striking” which means everyone getting their bell to ring at exactly the right moment so that the sound is even with no clashes and no large gaps - and when it’s done well it sounds very good. It is made tricky by the fact that on each stroke the bell doesn’t ring when you pull on the rope but about three quarters of the way through the swing, not long before you pull for the next stroke. The exact place will vary from bell to bell and also on the hand- and back-stroke for each bell. You need to be able to spot where your bell is sounding amongst all the others - having a good sense of musical pitch will help but is not essential as there are other ways of doing it - and then adjust your pull as necessary. So the first need is to listen to the bells. This may seem obvious but many people don’t do it.
The second thing that is important is to have a good sense of rhythm. If the bell you are following goes wrong it is much better if you can ignore it and rely on your own sense of rhythm to keep going at the right speed.
Third is the idea of “rope-sight” which involves spotting the sequence of ringing by being aware of which rope is just ahead of yours and which is just in front of that etc. It is quite helpful to see as well as hear what is happening but it is a mistake to rely on it too much. If you rely on it totally, ie if you only remember who you should be following and not your position and which way you are going, then there is the obvious danger that if that bell goes wrong then you will become completely lost.
So there a lot more to bellringing than just pulling on a rope. There is the physical challenge of controlling the bell and making it do exactly what you want. There is the mental one of getting your mind around the numerous strangely-named methods and their variations. There is the concentration required to handle the bell safely, to know where you are in the scheme of things and where you are going next, to listen to what is happening and to see what is happening around you, all at the same time. As a beginner each of these aspects seems to require your undivided attention, and how do you dare even partly to take your mind off the bell handling without risk to life and limb? You do, of course - it becomes second nature - but it is true to say that you can spend a lifetime learning and improving. The writer of this piece started ringing a couple of years ago in his mid fifties, loves every minute of it, and his only regret is that he didn’t start 40 years earlier.
The diagrams are reproduced from an excellent little booklet for beginners by Pam Copson - The One-per-Learner Book - and the writer is grateful for her permission to use them here. For information about that and their other publications visit the Sherbourne Teaching website at www.btinternet.com/~copson.