Bell-ringing for beginners: or should I say Bell-swinging?
- Published on Monday, 22 May 2023 11:32
- Last Updated on 16 May 2023
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Bell-ringing for beginners: or should I say Bell-swinging.
Did you know there’s a book listing every belfry (‘bell tower’) in the world with 3 or more swinging bells and 95% of them are in England? Swingers have the knobs on stalks (‘clappers’, as in, go like the ) inside that clang as the bell goes horizontal. There’s solo and twin bells, but they aren’t counted because all you can do with them is ding-dong or dong-ding. Not very exciting. You can’t make bell music ‘a method’ i.e. a sequence of dongs in a prearranged mathematical order. And that’s what fires up the bell-ringers of the British Isles and certain outposts of the ex-Empire.
Of course there’s also millions not in the book that stay still, solo and in groups, that you strike on the outside with a hammer (‘bourdons’) like Big Ben and the little tingy Communion bells, all over the Christian world. Big Ben weighs 13 tons, so it would bring the tower down if it swung. You remember how Quasimodo sprang about, pulling one rope after another? He was only able to ring all the bells by himself because Notre-Dame’s bells are also bourdons.
Once you have swinging, you have danger, because you must keep the tension on the rope or it’ll flail all over, whipping and hoisting anything in its path. Recently one of our more fragile elderly learners was flipped onto his back when the rope suddenly went slack and furious. It happens in the blink of an eye. There’s a warning shiver in the rope, and when you feel that, immediately you have to pull long and steady, when your instincts are to freeze. The worst thing you can do as a beginner is hang on and freeze, so there’s always a more experienced ringer by your side to take over.
The skills are multiple in controlling your bell. And you learn on one bell, because each bell is different. You have to learn how hard to pull to get it to swing enough to dong, but not too hard or you break the ‘stay’, a pole of ash no thicker than a table leg, that acts as a break. One of our new ‘Ring for the King’ learners broke theirs recently.
Your standing position must be with your nose a hand’s length away from the slack rope, (make a ‘call me’ hand gesture and measure to confirm) with the rope in the middle of the hole in the ceiling where it goes into the bell chamber. I breathe with the bell, like a Yoga exercise, out on the down-pull and in on the up-swing, which keeps me grounded and in control, of my concentration and of the bell.
You then learn to ring in a simple sequence (‘a round’) with your fellow ringers, so you have to time your pulls correctly, using your right-hand neighbour’s rope as the guide. You want to be ringing a quarter of a second after them. You’re controlling a 12 foot rope, sometimes longer, with you at one end and half a ton of bell at the other. Not as easy as it looks. When ‘ringing rounds’ you start at the highest pitch and ring round to the lowest. The sort of thing you hear at weddings. You follow the same bell on your right every time. Easy you think, till you find yourself, despite your best efforts, ringing BEFORE your right-hand neighbour… Or just a bit too late and clanging together with your left-hand neighbour. I have just about mastered this step after 8 months of ringing!
My beginner level has allowed me to ring rounds on Sundays, with the congregation mustering downstairs which feels like a small victory. My next target is to ring ‘call changes’, where bells swap their positions in the sequence one pair at a time, while ringing ’rounds’. So it’s no more following the same bell on and on, you have to follow different bells, which is introducing you to the 3 speeds you need to ring ‘methods’ later. While staying in control of your own bell…
Hi! I have a ‘portfolio’ lifestyle, jumping between mum, journalist, curator of my own museum, chauffeur, French tutor and carer. I love music, dance, theatre and dancing in the evenings, and helping others to enjoy life. I’ve been through the mill healthwise, along with my family, and am grateful for every day.