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.
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.
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.