The Bell Ringers

The Bell Ringers

If you would like to join the Bell Ringers, they ring the bells at St Giles’ Church every Sunday, except the first and fifth of the month, between 6.00 pm and 6.30 pm and between 10.00 am and 10.30 am before the Family Service on the fifth Sunday. There is a weekly practice every Wednesdays, from 7.45 pm to 9 pm, unless frost/snow are expected. All are welcome.  For more information please contact:

Judith MacKay judith.mackay [Email address: judith.mackay #AT# - replace #AT# with @ ]


Bell Ringing History

Have you ever wondered, as you walk along the path leading to the Church just before the service begins, how the bells are rung and how they produce their sound? You might feel that bell-ringing is shrouded in mystery, that visitors to the tower are not welcome, and that our church always has enough ringers. This is far from the truth. I hope to give some insight into the fascinating activity of bellringing and explain why ringers find it so challenging and rewarding.

The history of bells extends back almost to the dawn of civilisation when crude metallic objects were sounded to ward off evil spirits, to alter the weather, or to mark festive occasions. In medieval times the craft of bellfounding began to develop, and bells were hung in towers specially built for them. To begin with, bells were hung mouth downwards, but it was soon realised that by swinging the bell through a wider and wider arc a progressively fuller and richer tone was produced. To enable a bell to be swung in this way a wheel was attached and a rope tied to the wheel so that the ringer could control the swing of the bell to some extent.

In the sixteenth century, ringers developed a system of full-circle ringing, so that the bell starts from a mouth upward position, swings through a full circle and comes to rest mouth upwards again, before swinging back again full circle in the opposite direction. It was realised that a ringer had some control over the bell’s movement by varying the time during which it was held on the balance with mouth upwards, and change ringing developed by altering the sequence in which the bells in the tower were sounded.

Bellringing in those days was mainly a secular activity, practised largely by the squires and nobility. Some of the first ringing societies were founded at that time – the oldest society still in existence was founded by Lord Brereton in 1637. In the nineteenth century, ringing became increasingly identified with the Church, with most ringing peals being hung in church towers, and rung to mark Sunday services, weddings and so on. With improvements in bell hanging, ringing ceased to be physically arduous and ladies joined the ranks of ringers around the turn of the century. More complex methods of producing changes (the permutations of the order in which the bells strike) were developed and many challenging possibilities were opened up.

The Bells at St Giles’

Nowadays, bellringing is firmly established as a church-based activity, although many ringers pursue their hobby at other times as well – on practice nights, ringing for special occasions and so on. The bells’ primary function is to call the faithful to worship and to proclaim the church’s gospel far and wide. However, would-be ringers should not be put off if they are not themselves active church-goers!

Our church of St Giles’ has eight bells but, in common with many other churches of a similar age, did not acquire them all at the same time. The original six bells were cast at various times by different founders between 1728 and 1824 and were obviously not ideal as they were all recast in 1912. This work was carried out by Gillett and Johnson, a Croydon bell foundry. In those days the bells were rung from a gallery situated above the Penn pew, with the ringers having their own entrance via a door in the north wall of the church. This door has now been replaced by a window. In 1937 Gillett and Johnson added two bells to complete the octave, at the same time rehanging the bells in a steel frame at a higher level in the tower and moving the ringing room to its present position. The ringing room is now reached by means of an external iron staircase which can be quite hazardous in frosty weather! Several beams from the old wooden frame remain around the walls of the present ringing room. Other parts of the old frame went to make the outer lychgate in the churchyard.

We now have a very fine ringing peal with the lightest bell weighing 3½ cwt and the heaviest (known as the tenor) 13½ cwt; the ring is tuned to the scale of F#. The bells are popular with visiting ringers and are also very suitable for beginners, as they are particularly easy to handle. The firm of Gillett and Johnson was very active in the 19th and early 20th century and produced several excellent rings of bells, but increasingly came under competition from their rivals, John Taylor & Co (Loughborough) and Mears and Stainbank (Whitechapel). They eventually went out of business in the early 1950s.

The Art and Science of Bell Ringing

To many ringers, a peal of eight bells is regarded as the optimum number, as they can be tuned to a full octave. For change ringing purposes they need to be equipped with the fittings to enable them to be rung full circle. Smaller churches may have fewer bells (or none at all), and change ringers rapidly lose interest in towers with less than five bells or where full-circle ringing is not possible. Conversely, some larger churches and cathedrals have more than eight bells – for example, Slough has ten, and High Wycombe, Amersham and Reading have rings of twelve bells. It requires a greater degree of skill to ring changes accurately on these higher numbers, and most ringers regard twelve as the maximum. Towers such as St Martin’s-in-the-Bull Ring, Birmingham, where sixteen bells were installed in 1981, are still regarded as a curiosity, although rung regularly to a high standard by the local band.

When a bell is rung it rotates through a complete circle; it then rests on the balance, mouth upwards. The ringer can vary to some extent the time during which the bell is held on balance. This slight variation enables a change in the order in which the bells sound each time they are rung, but it is only practicable for a bell to change places with its immediate neighbour – a bell cannot “jump” two or more places, so tunes are not possible on bells hung for full circle ringing.

How does this work in practice? The bells begin by ringing a downward scale, i.e. they strike in order from the lightest to heaviest. This sequence is known as rounds and on eight bells would be written as 12345678. From this point, one of the ringers (the conductor) can call out the numbers of the bells which are to change position to obtain a new sequence – e.g. by calling “three to four” the sequence 12435678 is produced, and so on. This is known as call changes and is very useful for introducing learners to the bell control they will need to ring changes accurately. If you are listening to the bells you will recognise call changes easily, as the bells strike in almost the same sequence, with only slight variation in order, for some time. This is because the conductor allows the bells to settle down in their new sequence before calling another change.

Call changes give the learner the opportunity to listen to his own bell striking after another for several blows, and to realise that he must leave a larger gap when following a heavier bell as the latter has a larger wheel and so turns more slowly.

A more experienced band will progress from call changes to change ringing, where the sequence of the bells alters at every stroke according to a predetermined pattern learned by all the ringers.

Method Ringing

The patterns, known as methods, vary a great deal in complexity. At the most basic level, all the bells change position with their neighbour, so from rounds, the change 21436587 is produced. The same process would return the bells to rounds, so to produce additional changes the first and last bells remain in the same position, with the inner pairs changing, to give 24163857. By repeating these two steps eight times, the method known as Plain Hunt results. This is the most basic method, which ringers learn when they can handle a bell in rounds and is the basis from which more complex methods are derived.

If when you listen to the bells you notice that they strike in a different order every time they sound, this means that a method, rather than call changes, is being rung.

Learning to Ring

The first skill a ringer has to master is known as bell handling. This means the ringer must be able to control the swing of the bell so that it rings with the correct rhythm. As the bell rotates the rope is wound round the wheel so that the tail end of the rope rises to a point where the ringer can just reach it with arms fully stretched upwards (known as backstroke). The rope then comes off the wheel again as the bell turns the other way, and the ringer controls it by catching the sally (a tufted section where multicoloured wool is woven into the rope). This is known as handstroke.

The first steps in learning bell control are always done under individual tuition with constant supervision by an experienced ringer to avoid any mishaps. The pupil starts by ringing the backstroke, with the instructor ringing the handstroke to correct any over- or under-pulling by the learner. The bell does most of the work under its own momentum, and very little effort is needed to keep the bell ringing up to the balance, but the ringer needs to guide the rope so that it does not snake out of control. Having successfully coped with the backstroke, the beginner then rings the handstroke, the instructor taking the tail end of the rope. This step takes a little longer to master as it involves catching the sally at just the right moment to control the bell as it reaches its balancing point. The next stage is for the learner to ring both handstroke and backstroke, always under supervision until both trainee and instructor feel confident that the bell is under control all the time.

The next stage involves ringing a bell to rounds (the downward scale sequence) with other members of the band. This always generates a sense of achievement in the learner, akin to joining a team in sport. He (or she) must not only be secure in the technique of rope handling but also be able to control the bell so that it rings at the correct rhythm in time with the rest of the band. This is a little more difficult than it might seem because the bell does not strike until it has completed about two-thirds of its revolution in either direction. This means that there is a gap between the time the ringer pulls the rope and the moment at which the bell sounds. The ringer must judge this accurately so that the bell strikes at the correct time in relation to the other bells in the tower.

Most people pick up the basics of bell control after about half a dozen individual coaching sessions. As with most skills,  youngsters seem to learn faster! However, it takes rather longer (six months or so) to be able to ring any bell reliably to rounds.

Some towers ring nothing but call changes, but most ringers find them of limited interest and progress to method ringing. This involves the bells striking in a different order at every stroke according to a predetermined pattern. The learner starting method ringing will begin with a method consisting mainly of plain hunting, where his bell strikes progressively later in each change until he reaches the last place, then earlier in each change until reaching the first place (known as leading), and so on. Many dozens of methods are derived from slight variations on this pattern and are known as plain methods.

Progress beyond this stage involves learning more complicated patterns including increasing numbers of dodges, placemaking and other intricate work, which requires considerable practice. Such methods are known as treble bob or surprise methods. The pattern of each method has to be committed to memory, and the combination of accurate rhythm and intricate design gives rise to enormous satisfaction when done well – rather similar to that enjoyed by formation dancers, complicated drill marching etc. Conversely, a band trying to ring beyond its capabilities produces a cacophony with eventual collapse as the ringers lose their places in the pattern. Local bands vary greatly in the range of methods they can ring, and ringers wishing to progress to advanced methods may well find they have to visit other towers with the necessary repertoire.

Advanced Ringing

Ringing of the highest standard is usually achieved when the same band has the opportunity of ringing together for a prolonged period. The ringers can then establish a consistent rhythm and become familiar with the individual bells that each is ringing. Bands setting standards in the early days of change ringing mainly used rings of eight bells (like ours at St Giles’), and tended to ring changes on seven of them, the tenor bell (the heaviest) striking last in each change, as its weight often made it difficult to ring accurately to changes. By ringing all possible permutations of the seven bells, a total of 5040 changes is produced, and this came to be known as a peal. A peal takes anything between 2½ and 4 hours to ring, depending on the number of bells in the tower and their weight. Peals on easy-going rings of eight bells such as ours take about 2¾ hours and by convention are rung without a break and with the same ringers on the same bells throughout. There is no doubt that the best ringing produced on our bells has occurred during peals, and most ringers recognise peal ringing as the goal of quality ringing.

The figure of 5040 changes has persisted as the minimum for a peal on seven bells or less, with 5000 as the target for eight or more bells. Most peals are of about this length, but in fact, there is no upper limit on the length of peals, the restricting factor being the endurance of the ringers taking part or the forbearance of residents living within earshot! The longest peal ever rung was achieved by a band of young men who set out to ring all possible changes on eight bells (40320 changes). This remarkable feat took about 19 hours and was performed in Loughborough in 1963 – it has never been surpassed since! All peals are published in the ringers’ journal, The Ringing World, which provides a valuable record of the attainment of individual ringers and of method ringing generally. Some enthusiasts participate in amazingly large numbers of peals, amassing totals of 2000 or more during a ringing career. At an average of three hours each, that’s a lot of ringing!

A shorter period of ringing is naturally preferred by many ringers, and a quarter peal (taking about 45 minutes to ring) acts as a convenient goal for those with less stamina or time to spare. It also neatly fills the time normally taken for ringing before Sunday service, and many towers have a regular programme of quarter peals which are extremely useful for improving the standard of the band’s ringing.

Societies and Guilds

Bellringing is by its very nature a team activity and thrives where there is co-operation between ringers in nearby towers and districts. It was therefore natural that ringers formed themselves into guilds or associations to develop their art. The earliest such societies were London-based and modelled themselves on the ancient liveries and guilds of the City, with a master, stewards and so on. One such society, known as the Ancient Society of College Youths, was founded in 1637 and is still very active. It is mainly City-based, providing ringers for St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, St Mary-le-Bow and several other notable London churches, but its influence and membership extends across the country and even overseas. Membership is by election and greatly coveted. Its rival organisation, the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths (founded in 1747), is based at St Martins in the Fields and Shoreditch and likewise has members countrywide.

Many other territorial organisations were founded over the next 200 years, some with a geographical base (e.g. the Yorkshire Association) and others with ecclesiastical boundaries (e.g. the Coventry Diocesan Guild). Our own tower of St Giles’ is affiliated to the Oxford Diocesan Guild, which is one of the most active in the country and is subdivided into a number of branches to give a more local structure. Ringing guilds hold regular meetings in the various towers in their area which give members a chance to meet other ringers and practice with them on different rings of bells in their locality.

Most universities have their own ringing societies which give new students a ready point of contact as well as providing ringing for particular towers in the town or city. For example, four towers in Oxford rely entirely on the University Society to keep the bells maintained and rung during term time. Most university societies provide invaluable experience for ringers, many of whom keep in touch long after they have moved on to employment elsewhere.

The various guilds, associations and societies came into being almost independently of each other, and this led to a rather haphazard arrangement until the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers was founded in 1891. All territorial and university societies of a certain minimum size are entitled to send representatives to the Central Council, whose function is to promote the art and science of ringing in all its aspects. It meets once a year and has a number of committees dealing with issues such as belfry maintenance, ringing records, public relations, publication of ringing manuals and books, and so on. Although it has no statutory powers its decisions are accepted as being for the good of ringing generally.

Want to learn more?

We always welcome anyone interested in seeing bell ringing in action. It is much easier to demonstrate the technique in action than to describe it in words. You can contact Anne Frank on  290630, or come to watch the ringing before Sunday evening service (from 6 pm, except the first Sunday of the month). Once they have started, most people find it is an absorbing and challenging pastime which has enormous scope for progression and variety.