Could I be a Bell Ringer?

What sort of people become Bellringers?

In the past couple of years, we have added 5 new members to our band. They’re all so different it’s impossible to generalise.. let me introduce them to you. (*names changed)

  • Jamie* is 12, and his skills with sport have really helped – he’s used to following instructions which include details of how to move his feet, hands, even elbows. Despite being unable at first to manage any but the smallest of our bells, he’s now developed his technique so much that he is able to ring any of the lightest four, without help. He’s recently graduated from the Saturday 1-1 sessions to our evening learner’ practice.
  • Derek* retired a few months ago from his job as a HGV driver. Years on the road have left him really keen to join in a regular social activity, make friends, and learn new skills, He’s getting fit too, so visits the gym as well as the belfry. He has more than enough strength for our lighter bells and he is really looking forward to having a go in due course on our Tenor which weighs almost a ton and a half, and is beyond the capacity of most ringers! He’s the most recent graduate from the Saturday course.
  • Charlotte* is 12 now and has been ringing with us since her 10th birthday.She’s been a regular member of our Sunday Service band for over a year. When she started, her biggest challenge was finding the strength to ring her bell consistently for a sustained period, but she was absolutely determined! Week by week she has built up the strength, and technique, to be able to strike her bell really well as one of the Sunday team. When we are ringing all 12 of our bells in “Rounds”, everyone has to concentrate in order to hear their own bell and place it accurately in the overall sound – Charlotte is currently getting to grips with this important skill. On 6 or 8 bells she is already a confident “Call Changes” ringer now so she is starting to build the skills needed to ring methods.
  • Dan* is 14 and has been part of the band for 2 years. Right from the start, he was enthusiastically turning up for the Saturday sessions on his bike, waiting at the tower door before the Captain arrived, and keen to absorb all the skills he needed. He has worked his way steadily up through the skills he needs to ring methods – he’s already rung his first Quarter Peal and has the next one booked soon.
  • Dave* runs a business a stone’s throw away from the tower, so he is an invaluable member of the band when we need to muster 8 people to ring for a wedding, especially midweek when many of the band are at school or work. He took up ringing 2 years ago because he could hear the bells from his garden and wanted to ring them, not just listen! As well as  ringing for services, at practice night he now plays the role of “support ringer” as the newest recruits take their first steps in ringing Rounds, and has recently cracked the mysteries of ringing Plain Hunt. He also takes the opportunity to ring in other towers around the District when they play host to Saturday afternoon open practices – like many of us he finds the challenge of ringing unfamiliar bells really rewarding,

How long does it take to learn?

Every ringer is still a learner – just like an orchestral musisican, there is always more “music” for us to learn. I say music – the Methods that we ring are based on simple mathematical principles, and if well rung, the rhythm should be absolutely consistent. But some are easier to memorise and ring than others, and all ringers find it more of a challenge to keep their place, the more bells there are ringing. So the first answer is, a lifetime

At the simplest level (which is common for many towers on a Sunday, when our priority is to produce the most accurate ringing), the music is called as we go by the conductor. This means only one person has to memorise the changes (or make them up on the fly, if they are experienced). With all the local towers ringing more or less simultaneously on a Sunday morning, this is the time when we need as many people as possible who will turn up on time, and ring as well as they can.New recruits in our tower become Sunday ringers after between 3 months and a year, generally.

Most recruits, once they are competently ringing call changes, are champing at the bit to learn methods (where each ringer has memorised their line, and the conductor’s job is to manage the overall progress through the method). Mastering Plain Hunt and then the first plain method can take anywhere from months to several years – the record locally is 30 years, but she was SO proud when she finally made it!

There are people in the band who try methods and eventually think “this isn’t for me” – a lifetime ringing Rounds and Call changes for Sunday Services is something many in our community take a real pride in.

Ringing one or two methods well, you start to flip through the book and want to spread your wings…. for this kind of ringer, once they know the repertoire at their home tower, they become regular visitors elsewhere, and get more methods under their belts. “Special Practices”, where the methods are published in advance, are invaluable at this stage, and so is homework – in the past, pen and paper were used to learn methods, these days we can vary that with software athough pen and paper still matters.

Map showing the towers in part of the guild
Map showing the towers in part of the guild

It is an inclusive world –  so much so that if a ringer turns up at virtually any tower on a Sunday or a practice night, they will be welcomed, given a rope to ring something within their competence, and perhaps taken to the pub (or coffee shop if it’s a Sunday!) afterwards. On occasion, one turns up to ring in a church and ends up, 2 hours later, having taken a tour of the city, rung for 3 different services in 3 towers, having a well earned brunch!

For some of us, ringing methods becomes a passion and their diary is full of special practices, Quarter Peals, and Peals. The level of fluency and confidence achieved by ringing mutliple times a week makes them extremely valuable to others who are still learning – somehow when you ring something difficult with a band of experts, it makes total sense! These high level ringers are often still to be found once a week, teaching a brand new recruit how to handle a bell – as one learner commented “It’s like being taught to kick a football by David Beckham.”

in-the-belfry-at-christchurch-prioryOthers venure further up into the tower and join the world of Steeplekeepers – for them, changing ropes, replacing stays, and checking bearings is deeply satisfying.

Others learn to conduct and compose – new methods are being developed all the time and even the boundries of what constitutes a method are hotly debated…..

So if you joined our band, what would you learn, and how long would it take? There’s only one way to find out!