Have you ever heard church bells ringing and wondered what goes on behind the scenes?

Perhaps you are wondering what to do in retirement and would like a new hobby.

Or maybe you are simply drawn to the prospect of becoming more involved in community life.

Regardless of your motivations, read on and discover it’s not all about bats in the belfry and Quasimodo!

Why do church bells ring?

Church bells can be heard frequently in Great Britain. Most commonly they are rung to call people to worship on Sundays but you might also hear the bells on a weekday evening when the ringers hold their practice session to improve their skills and teach beginners.

Church bells ring throughout the year to mark important occasions in the life of individuals, the church and the nation:

  • We hear them ring joyfully at weddings.
  • The sound of bells heralds the special religious services for Easter and Christmas.
  • The first minutes of each New Year are celebrated with bell ringing.
  • Ringers marked the opening of the London 2012 Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.
  • On a sadder note, church bells are tolled at funerals and rung half-muffled to create a mournful sound for Remembrance Day.

What’s the history behind church bell ringing?

Bells were introduced into Christian churches from 400AD but these were not like the church bells we know today. They were hung on a spindle and chimed by the clergy pulling on a rope.

From the late sixteenth-century bell-hanging technology changed and each bell was mounted on a wheel which gave more control to the bell ringer.

The addition of a stay and slider made things even easier, allowing the ringer to rotate the bell a full 360 degrees and stop or start the ringing as required.

That same type of mechanism is still in use today and allows bells to be rung in continually changing patterns or ‘methods’ (see below).

How do you ring a church bell?

One-to-one tuition from an experienced ringer is required to learn the basic skills of bell-handling.

The beginner must first master the ‘handstroke’ and ‘backstroke’ individually and then put them together in order to ring independently.

For the handstroke, the ringer pulls the sally (or fluffy part of the rope) downwards causing the bell to start moving and to turn through 360 degrees.

At this point, the rope snakes upwards through a small hole in the ceiling of the ringing room and the ringer is left, arms stretched upwards, holding only the very end of the rope, known as the ‘tail end’.

For the backstroke, the ringer pulls the tail end back down which causes the bell to move in the opposite direction and it finishes back where it started, with the ringer re-catching the sally.

The bell sounds as each stroke is made so that one full cycle of handstroke and backstroke causes the bell to ring out twice.

Church bell ringing methods or patterns

As a ringer I am often asked, ‘Can you ring tunes on church bells?’ The answer is, ‘No, we don’t ring tunes which are recognisable to the layman. We ring methods.’

Having mastered the skill of handling a bell, the beginner will learn to ring ‘rounds’. Rounds are comparable to a scale – the bells ring in order from lightest to heaviest (or highest note to lowest note).

In a church tower with six bells, the order of the bells in rounds would be: 123456, where ‘1’ is the lightest bell and ‘6’ the heaviest.

After rounds, the beginner will be taught ‘call changes’. In call changes, the ringing master shouts a command which changes the sequence of the bells.

For example, he or she might shout, “Two to Three.” This means bells ‘2’ and ‘3’ swap places in the sequence, causing the order of the bells to become 132456. The ringing master will continue to call the changes until he reaches his desired sequence and will then reverse the changes until the bells are back in rounds.

Next in the beginner’s curriculum comes the learning of methods. In a method the bells change the order in which they strike each time the rope is pulled without the ringing master calling the commands.

The bell ringers must memorise the pattern of the bells within each method. The methods can be hundreds of years old and have interesting names such as Plain Bob Major, Stedman Triples and Cambridge Surprise Minor.

The last part of each method name denotes how many bells are required for the method, for example Major = 8, Triples = 7 and Minor = 6.

Famous bell ringers

Bell ringing may seem like a niche hobby, enjoyed by only the few, but there are several famous people who are known to have been bell ringers.

In an interview with the Daily Mail, broadcaster and former politician, Ed Balls said about bell ringing, “I did it at a local church in Nottingham for four years from the age of 14. It’s technically difficult but it has a mathematical beauty.”

The poet Ian McMillan told The Big Issue, “You wouldn’t think this to look at me but I can pull a sally and hold a tenor on a slider and not smash the headstock as well as most people.”

Comedian Jo Brand was also a ringer in her younger days. “I used to do bell ringing in Benenden church. It was really good fun actually,” she said in an interview with the BBC.

There are also actors who have had to learn the basics of bell ringing for a particular part. An episode of Midsomer Murders, ‘Ring Out Your Dead’, called for six actors to become bell ringers. There was only time for the actors to learn to look reasonably confident on the end of a rope, clever editing did the rest.

Bell ringing near me – how to join in

Bell ringers are a friendly social group and always keen to introduce new people to their hobby. Learning to ring will keep you active physically, mentally and socially.

Anyone can become a bell ringer. No special skills are necessary but you will need a full range of movement in your arms and shoulders and the ability to access the ringing chamber, which may be up a spiral staircase, however, some churches do have more accessible ground floor ringing.

It’s not necessary to be a churchgoer but you must be prepared to ring for church services.

Everyone learns to ring at different rates and it has been compared to learning to drive; the younger you start, the quicker you’ll learn. As a rough guide, expect to be ringing unsupervised after about six months.

If you know at which church you would like to learn to ring, make contact directly. Alternatively, search the Association of Ringing Teachers directory for a teacher near to you.

Bell ringing is a lifetime learning journey and an addictive, sociable hobby.

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