Bell Ringing

An attempt to explain what its all about. It's not as bad as it sounds, honest guv'. But there's lots of it.


Bell ringing   Change ringing   The bells   What we ring
More useful info   Why?   Learning to ring   Top Tip

Bell ringing

has been practiced across the world for thousands of years, in a variety of forms. By 1600 this had developed into the style that remains in use in most of Europe today: chiming by randomly swinging the bells through about 45°. However, in Britain bell ringing evolved into change ringing about 400 years ago.

Change ringing

is practiced in Britain, mainly, but also in those parts of the world with British influence - Ireland, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and also Northern Italy. The bells are rung in an equally spaced sequence, from the highest note to the lowest. This order can be altered by adjacent bells swapping the position that they sound in, following a predetermined pattern.

The bells

Change ringing requires much greater control of the bell then random chiming. If a bell is hung for chiming, it is hung mouth down, and swung from side to side to make the clapper strike the bell. As a result, it is almost impossible to control exactly when the bell strikes.

Change ringing needs each bell to be struck at an exact moment in a sequence: if the bells were hung mouth down, this would not be possible. Therefore the bell is hung mouth upwards, and rung with a rope around a wheel. The ringer is attached to the other end of the rope, in the ringing room downstairs; they pull the rope to start the bell moving, and check it to stop the bell - this is only a very gentle force, as the bell does most of the work through its own momentum and some clever laws of physics beyond me. The bell moves through 360°, the clapper striking the bell once in the process: this is known as 'full circle' ringing (can you guess why?). Now in the opposite position to its' starting point the bell is swung back through 360°, again sounding once, to end up as it started. With practice, the ringer learns to make the bell sound at the exact time needed to be in the correct position amongst other bells for the sequence that they are ringing.
A bell in its frame

A bell hung for change ringing - mouth upwards, shown at rest in a cutaway frame.

There are over 5200 churches with 4 or more bells hung for ringing in Britain, concentrated in England: you are unlikely to be very far from some ringing (worrying thought). The number of bells in each tower varies, but can range from as few as 3 to as many as 14 or 16: however 6 or 8 (a complete octave) is about average. The bell with the highest note, usually the lightest, is called the treble, that with the lowest the tenor, usually the heaviest, and those in between numbered from 2 upwards (eg on 6: Treble, 2, 3, 4, 5, Tenor). Church bells hung for change ringing can range from 1cwt (1/20 ton) to 83cwt (over 4 tons); Exeter Cathedral has the second heaviest ring of bells in the world, at 72cwt (3.5tons).


What we ring

Combinations of changes are called methods; every bell does the same thing, but starts from a different position on a 'line' -

Plain Hunt on 6

In this case (one of the simplest) the path of the treble is highlighted as the position in which it sounds moves through the other bells. This line effectively tells each person which order to strike in; there are thousands of different lines, with new ones being worked out all the time. And I know them all. Yeah right

As a part of ringing, peals are sometimes rung. These are (at least) 5040 different changes, and can last for over four hours. Quarter peals are more common, and as the name suggests, a quarter of the length of a peal - lasting about 45 minutes (far more reasonable). At a practice, the average piece of ringing lasts about 5 minutes (even better).


More useful info

Try this site (where I nicked stuff from):
Southampton University Guild - Cheers guys!


Ultimately...(although you may not believe it) because it's fun! But there are loads of other reasons:
  • It's interesting.
  • It's really a glorified excuse for an almighty session down the pub.
  • It's unique (try finding something as bizarre as this that thousands of people do each day). It IS different - a talking point.
  • The historical aspect (tradition and all that).
  • The chance to meet new people - ringers are quite a friendly bunch (some say inbred).
  • The physical and mental challenge.
  • The controversy - a la the mad woman in Wiltshire who hacked her way into the ringing room and cut the ropes recently.
  • To let people know there's something going down at the church on Sunday mornings at times when they should be in bed (still the middle of the night).
  • The chance to earn money - you get paid for ringing the bells for people's weddings.
  • For the simple satisfaction of the sound - when it's done well, it's like nothing else (mega cheese alert).


Learning to ring

Having waded through all of that you're probably ready to go and murder a ringer (I can supply a few addresses). It's not really as tricky (or as tedious) as it seems: it just takes a bit of practice.

You don't have to be strong, musical or mathematical to ring (which is good, or I would be in severe trouble), &, though this may be a disappointment, it isn't dangerous. Best of all, it costs nothing to learn! (Just what a student needs.)


If you're so foolish as to be interested (or just want a laugh at someone else's expense), contact us; or come to a practice and see us in action. We are friendly (only Catherine bites), and even if you don't like it, there's always the pub afterwards.


Top Tip

Don't spend the afternoon in the bar and then turn up to the practice. One of our number (mentioning no names - Michael) recently did this, and while it improved the sound of the ringing to him, it didn't have a great effect on what everyone else heard. And having to keep going outside for fresh air every five minutes was not too good either. Neither were the steps up the tower for that matter. But the pub afterwards was fun. However, being introduced to one of the ringer's housemates later in the term, and then having her say "The one who got drunk?" was a kind of infamy that he was perhaps not looking for.