Category Archives: Ringing thoughts

Discussion of change ringing on church bells

Bell Ropes

There isn’t much written about bell ropes, even though they are an essential part of every bell installation.

A good bell-rope needs to be thick enough to grip comfortably, flexible yet not floppy, soft but not springy. However, ropes should not be too thick, which is sometimes the case for moderately heavy bells.  Whilst the bell may be rather heavy, ringers come in standard sizes which means that their hands aren’t any bigger and they can’t pull any more strongly, so the rope doesn’t need to be any stronger either.   The thick rope just makes the handling even more difficult. Even quite a thin rope is enough to withstand the strongest pull and so the thickness should be related to a getting the necessary grip.

Ropes have traditionally been made of hemp, which has these properties.  Unfortunately, its association with illegal drugs made hemp unobtainable from the 1980s onwards, although legal varieties of hemp are now available again.

Fibre such as sisal is far too rough for bell-ropes, resulting in ropes that are too stiff and cause blisters.  [Ringers do not wear gloves, which are both too sweaty and cause blisters between the fingers.]

The usual substitute for hemp has been Flax (from which linen is made). It is softer than hemp, which is very often quite stiff when the ropes are new.  The main problem with flax is that it is not as durable as hemp, especially when exposed to flexing and rubbing as it passes over the wheels and pulleys, and when hitting the floor of the ringing room. It also gradually denatures (rots) and can become powdery and friable in towers that get warmed from the church.  Moisture from the warmed air condenses in the cold bell-chamber which accelerates the problem.

A flax bell rope is likely to need some splicing and repairs to worn parts within six to ten years of regular use.    Hemp bell-rope is likely to last upwards of 12 years before splicing is required.

It is possible to buy artificial fibre that is claimed to have better properties than either hemp or flax, but it is often too soft – the tail ends can become floppy, which makes for difficult handling.  And moreover, they are not as absorbent, so can become quite sweaty, damp and unpleasant. I can’t recommend these ropes.

Nowadays a good compromise seems to be to use a terylene (polyester) rope for the ‘top end’, ie above the sally, and hemp for the section through the sally and to the tail.  Terylene is said to be less springy than natural fibre, but even ‘pre-stretched’ terylene is springy in long lengths, and can be as bad as hemp for this. The main advantage is that it is much more resistant to rubbing over pulleys and wheels, or rotting in the damp conditions of most towers.  Moreover, the lengthening and shrinkage caused by humidity changes is much less noticeable with Terylene.  [Bell-ropes are often 60 to 100 feet long and can shrink or lengthen by some inches due to changes in humidity.]

Terylene is completely unsuitable for the tail as it would blister and cut your hands.  Also, being quite slippery, it could come untucked very easily.    This makes it much more difficult to splice than natural rope.  It is better to get your rope-maker to ‘machine-splice’ the terylene top end into the hemp lower end.  On no account use polypropylene or nylon – this is incredibly stretchy and will test your bell-control to the very limit.

Sallies

My favourite rope-maker tells me that sallies must be made of 100 % natural wool, which is becoming hard to get.  Most yarn is now combined with other fibres.  And you need to make sure that the wool is densely packed in the sally.  My rope-maker says they have to buy the wool and get it dyed to the colours required before being spun into yarn.  This makes it expensive and of course the sally is the most expensive part of the rope. But a well-made sally won’t shed much fibre and can be expected to last fifteen years before it starts to look rather thin.

Looking after your bell-ropes

Try to keep the ropes dry, but not bone-dry.  I’ve seen some towers use rope-heaters but I’m not really a fan of these –  as long as the tower maintains normal humidity, the ropes should be fine.

If the flooring is rough, such as using those hard-wearing carpet tiles, then it is best to position a soft wool mat for the rope to fall onto, as the rope can wear at that point.  It is also advisable to reposition the tucks from time to time, as the lone strand can fray, thus needing a splice.

Terylene top-ends don’t seem to need repositioning on the wheel, but keep an eye on this – they are difficult to splice and you will probably need to put on a whole new top-end if they start to fray.  Indeed, it might well be time to get a new rope.

Tail ends can get horribly greasy.  Most ringers come to expect this, although in today’s health-conscious times, some may object.  It is probably best to tell them to use some hand-sanitiser if this is a concern.  There is some controversy over the use of hand-cream.  I know of a few people who complain that ringing makes their hands sore.  In fact, it probably makes everyone’s hands sore, but after a few quarter peals and peals, they do harden up.  Of course, some don’t want hard hands!  So they surreptitiously put ‘glycerine rose water’ or similar on their hands, saying this isn’t grease.  Perhaps not, but it is just dilute glycerine.  This holds moisture and still makes the ropes sticky and the tails stiff.  Should you wash the tails?  Generally, I would say not, but I have heard of those who have used ‘delicate’ clothes detergent on the tail ends and claimed a great improvement.  The only time I did this (on some extremely stiff ropes) the water was utterly disgusting!

However, on no account try to wash the sally.  Do not get it even the slightest bit wet.  I know of someone who ruined a set of bell-ropes by washing the sallies.  This can have the effect of loosening the twists of the rope strands, causing the wool to fall out.  If you want to research with an old sally, do let me know what happens.

Rope length

The length of the tail end when stretched at backstroke is critical to good ringing.  The ringer needs to feel that the bell has reached its balance point (or perhaps a little below that) when at full stretch.  Whilst experienced ringers can cope with ropes of different lengths, this can be uncomfortable when ringing for a long time, such as a 3-hour peal. In a peal, you need to be able to entirely forget the bell (just as you don’t think about putting one foot in front of the other when walking) so that you can concentrate on the method.  Peal ringers spend some time adjusting their ropes, putting knots in or standing on a ‘box’ to achieve a comfortable length.

Observations for non-ringers

Why are ringers so obsessive about a bit of string that disappears through a little hole in the ceiling?  Well, it is the only contact they have with a tonne of metal swinging around in the darkness of the bell-chamber.  The tension in the rope is all you have to tell you where the bell is in its swing, whether it is rising to the balance or falling off the balance, or exactly on the balance.  Remember that the bell does not ring when you pull the rope! [A small amusement for ringers is to ask a non-ringer to pull the rope (when the bell is down) and nothing happens whatsoever!]

However, it extremely dangerous to pull the rope of a bell that is up, and since a non-ringer will be unable to tell whether a bell is up or down, never touch a bell rope unless you have been trained.  You could get anything from nasty rope-burn to a broken ankle or cracked skull as you plummet to a stone floor. 

The rope moves unexpectedly fast and with considerable force as the bell falls under its own weight as it turns.

Obviously all learners are taught the do’s and don’ts before anything else, so serious accidents are rare. Indeed all learners will have an experienced tutor standing close by ready to take control, probably for the first several months or maybe even a year.

So if the bell doesn’t ring when you pull the rope, when does it ring? The bell rings after it has turned full circle, i.e. abut 2 seconds later, at around the time the rope stops moving.  It takes quite a time to get used to this, since the bell must strike (ring) to an accuracy of about one-twentieth of a second if the ringing is to sound good.  Depending on your aptitude it will probably take around another year to become good at hearing when your bell strikes.

I’m often asked whether I ring by looking for the bell I am following, or whether I do it by listening.  My answer – that I do both – clearly doesn’t satisfy learners.  They only see a jumble of ropes flying around.  But with effort and experience, you can see the order in which the bells fall.  I don’t have a good musical ear, so I can’t tell you the order of the bells just by listening, although I can usually pick out the position of the treble as well as my own bell.

 

Why people give up ringing

There has been a lot written about why people give up ringing.

Apart from the obvious reasons – job or family commitments – a recent RW survey shows that some people have experienced unsociality,  poor learning experience and even ‘bullying’.

These are shameful findings, but are, I am sure, confined to individual cases rather than being endemic.  Unsociality occurs in many forms, but ringers are rather inclined to ‘rate’ other people according to their ringing ability. This inevitably puts learners at the bottom of the pile.  Ringers so rarely enquire about newbies’ background, even though many have seriously important occupations.  They are rather inclined to ‘show off’ their own abilities by lecturing learners in often unhelpful ways.

In some towers, learners are not given priority – they have to wait until the tower captain condescends to give them a go.   I am more surprised to hear of ‘bullying’, although old school tower captains sometimes treat newbies like army recruits, perhaps because that is the way they were treated when learning.

Sadly, tower captains often inherit the position, get there through ‘Gubbin’s turn’, or simply because there is no-one else prepared to do it.  I would suggest that learners need to ask the advice of ordinary ringers about which tower is best: perhaps ask to see a local association report and find a tower with a lot of members.  Go to the pub after the practice, find a friendly face and ask for advice.

Don’t feel obliged to stay out of loyalty if you feel uncomfortable in a tower. Once you can ring safely, try out a few practices and find somewhere where they have a structured approach.  Remember though, that ringing is much harder than it looks.  It just isn’t possible to see the subtlety by watching: only time on the end of the rope will give you the finesse that is needed.

What towers can do.
Towers should not say to beginners, ‘Oh yes, we will be happy to teach you. Anyone can learn. Just come next practice night.’ They should explain in more detail the time, effort and dedication needed.
Most people can learn the basics of bell-handling fairly quickly.  It is much more difficult to progress into change-ringing.  Apart from anything else, you have to practice with a group of ringers who are better than you are.  And in a structured way, with appropriate theory, and with appropriate exercises to help you through the particular difficulties that you experience.  This needs someone who can identify what help you need, which is a skill in itself.  Few ordinary practices – often 90 minutes in length – have the scope both to provide the exercises that beginners require and the interest that experienced ringers require.  If you dedicate the first 45 minutes to the learners, the experienced people may not bother to turn up.  Once the experienced ringers arrive, the learners no longer get a go.

There are a few clever teachers who can achieve a good experience for both groups.  This means starting earlier and involving everyone throughout.  The experienced ringers can be asked to make short theory presentations.  Any learner who can safely handle a bell can call ‘stand’ after 20 whole pulls.  They can call very simple call-changes.  Exercises like whole pull and stand or Mexican wave are fun for everyone.

The amount of sitting out can be kept to a minimum.  Just as you expect the learners to show commitment, encourage the more experienced ringers to commit – they can be asked to look after short touches or other exercises.

Also, ensure that the leaners value the contribution of the experienced ringers – thank the experienced ringers for their work in the hearing of the learners.  But also make it clear that the practice will switch to something for the experienced people: the learners can stay to hear good ringing if they wish, but their session has ended.  This often works well when the learners are still at school.  The band should then retire to the pub for socialising (this no longer means drinking yourself under the table as most pubs expect to sell lots of soft drinks and coffee these days).

Finding a good tower

I’ve mentioned the importance of finding a tutor to help you.  Unfortunately, the current structure of the ‘exercise’ (as the old ringers called it) is not helpful.  It is still largely based around individual churches, or towers as they’re called.  The concept is that you are trained to ring at the church that you attend, primarily for Sunday service ringing.  Modern communications mean that this insular approach is breaking down – it’s easy to find out what is happening in nearby towers and where bands are making good progress.  Ambitious ringers will drift away from towers where the learning experience is poor and they may well abandon it altogether.

My experience is that any competent ringer can, with a little experience, teach someone to handle a bell.  However, it takes more skill to recognise and correct handling faults.  Method ringing is much more difficult to learn and to teach and many tower captains don’t offer a good learning experience at this stage. The result is that many learners fail to progress much further than the basics.

Try to find a tower where there is a large band, or a small band with quite a few learners.  Find out the name of the tower captain and call them to ask if you could attend their practice and whether they’d be prepared to teach you.  Because teaching takes thought, time and effort, your tutor will want to know that you’re serious about it and will give it the attention that it will need.

At most towers, training is free, but you are still entitled to a rich learning experience.  If the practice time appears to be rather disorganised, be prepared to ‘shop around’, but be careful not to be too commercial in your approach.  The ringing community is small and intense – others will know about you well before even you know them.  If training is free, where does the payback come?  You will be expected to join the local ‘band’ and to help out as appropriate with domestic chores – cleaning the tower, maintaining the bell-chamber, organising social activities – but most importantly, to ring for Sunday service and other occasions.  Practices are usually held on one evening a week.  However, there will be a local ringing society or guild which will organise meetings and training activities.

A good tutor will give you a training plan and arrange for you to experience different towers.  I’ve already made it clear that ringing is difficult, but do not blame your tutor or let that put you off.  It is uniquely rewarding too.  Many ringers are in their seventies and eighties these days.  A few are in their nineties and I have the privilege of ringing with a centenarian.  It’s clear that the physical, mental and social aspects of ringing are good for you.

Has all my learning got to be done in the tower?

Not at all. But this is the subject of another blog.

Becoming a better ringer

Thoughts about change ringing on church bells

I’ve decided to blog about change ringing on church bells, since I spend most of my spare time doing this.

My intended audience (if I have any) is people who have already learnt to handle a bell and can ring basic methods such as Plain Bob on five or six bells, who desire to advance their ringing.

Becoming a good ringer

I have struggled for years to become a better ringer.  I’ve rung peals of Surprise Royal and called quarter peals of Caters and Royal, but I still struggle to improve, and have great trepidation when attempting something difficult.

What is a good ringer?

For most ringers, a good ringer is someone with good bell control who can ring the ‘standard’ methods on a wide variety of bells,  strike their bell accurately and who is reliable – meaning that they rarely go wrong.  If you can ring advanced methods on higher numbers of bells, you are probably an ‘excellent’ ringer.  If you can ring advanced methods on 12 or more bells, you are perhaps an ‘elite’ ringer.  There are not a lot of these!

Bell-handling

Good bell-handling is essential to good ringing.  Deficient bell-handling will cause you to find that long draughts, high ceilings or close ropes are scary and your striking will suffer. There is a long list of handling faults that I won’t address here, but get a good tutor to help you.

It can be a serious problem if your rope swings forwards or sideways as you catch the sally: it can get in the way of an adjacent ringer or can catch on a door handle or other object with nasty consequences. [Although if there are any objects that could be caught in that way, they should be removed.  In one tower the flower-arrangers had left a heavy plant stand with wrought-iron curlicues against the wall of a ringing room. An unfortunate ringer hooked it with their rope and it flailed up and down across the ringing room, scattering the ringers, although with no lasting damage!] You should particularly ensure that you flick the rope down vertically in front of you at backstroke, that the rope falls over your thumb and over the back of your hand, rather than across your fingers, when you catch the sally and that the tail is between your thumb and the sally at handstroke.

Pay particular attention to:

  • Standing in the right place (not too far back)
  • Easily adjusting your rope length at backstroke
  • Catching the sally in the right place
  • Following through at both strokes

More advanced:

  • Pulling slightly harder at handstroke (especially on light bells or when there is a long draught)
  • Lengthening and shortening the backstroke according to the timing of your next pull
  • Adjust the pull so that the bell just rises to its highest point at the moment you need to pull again
  • Thinking ahead to the timing of the next stroke
Improving your rhythm

Good handling will help your ability to ring to a rhythm.  This in itself will help you to improve your rope-sight: by ringing at the right speed, your bell will fall into the right place, which you will be able to see your place so much more easily.  This is crucial to ringing on higher numbers, where error margins are smaller, but there are more positions to ring in and more ropes to look at.

There is another crucial benefit to good handling:  you will be less distracted by concerns that you might miss the sally, or that the bell will drop or go over the balance.  This means that you can put more of your thinking into the method.  If you constantly have those fears, again get a good tutor to check your handling.  Your ultimate aim is that your handling is so autonomous that the bell ‘rings itself’.  After all, you don’t think about putting one foot in front of the other when walking, and your aim is to get to the same state with ringing.

A further benefit is that you will need less effort in your ringing. This will help you to avoid aches and pains in your hands, arms, shoulders and abdomen, and to avoid blisters (although doing lots of ringing will help to toughen your hands).  You will also have reserves for managing those difficult bells.

Listening

The next thing is learning to listen.  Constantly count the bells and listen to the one that strikes in your position – i.e. yourself.  If you do this rigorously, you will find that after a while you can automatically hear your bell.  And with further practice and effort, you can pick out all the other bells too. This brings several rewards.  This lets you correct for odd-struckness of your bell and you can hear when the treble is leading, which will help to ensure that you dodge in the right place.  Moreover, with more practice, you can hear which place you are in, so you don’t need to rely so much on counting your place.  And you can listen to the music and enjoy it. But importantly, it frees up part of your mind so you can think about the method ringing.

Difficult methods

When these things are second nature, you can start ringing difficult methods.  Whilst any method is difficult when you can’t do it, some are challenging even to good ringers.  There is no alternative but to learn the ‘blue line’ thoroughly.  This is easy to say, but so hard to do for people with normal memories.  Most of us find that we can suddenly blank out, with no idea of where we are.  This is disastrous in ringing, and you rely one someone else being able to correct you.  It is so dreadfully easy for the other ringer to suddenly doubt whether they have made an error, and go wrong as well.  This is so often fatal.

This is not a sign of ‘old age’ or forgetfulness.  It’s so easy to be distracted by a strange noise, a sudden twinge or realising you didn’t make an important phone call.  You can learn to mentally rise above the ringing, so that you feel like an outside observer.  You have to do this as a conductor.  Firstly, you have to manage your own bell, secondly you have to manage the method, thirdly you have to remember where you are in the calling, and finally, you have to correct errors and lapses of other ringers.  As a new ringer, any one of these would need your total mental processing capacity, but with practice and effort, you can get there.

Signposts

Many times I have told aspiring ringers some of the signposts and tricks that I use, just in case I have a lapse.  But so often they dismiss this with a shrug and mutter along the lines of ‘Don’t confuse me!’

I don’t mind, as long as they realise that it is a step-by-step process needing conscious effort to observe and learn the signposts.  In fact, the mental effort you are making to watch the sign-posts will increase your alertness and reduce your likelihood of lapse.

Amongst the important signposts are to observe where you work with or pass the treble and likewise your course bell.  On the other hand, it is fatal to rely only on these sign-posts, because it depends on other people staying right.

So if neither your memory nor other ringers are entirely reliable, how do you manage to score peals and quarter peals?

This must be the subject of my next blog.