English Church Bell Ringing

Frequently Asked Questions

Table of Contents

How much does it cost? How will it help me keep fit?
Is it dangerous? What sort of time commitment?
What is so special about bell ringing? How long does it take to learn?
What are the benefits? Will people look down on me as a learner?
I don’t suppose I’m strong enough! Do I have to be a church-goer?
But I’m not musical So what is the purpose of ringing?
But I’m not good at mathematics! What sort of traditions are there?
Can anyone ring Whereabouts can one ring bells?
What about disabilities? Will I be able to ring for the Millennium?
Will it damage my hearing? I’m interested - how can I learn to ring?

How much does it cost?

It doesn’t cost anything. We never charge to teach people to ring. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have good teachers - we do. However, it is customary in bellringing to teach new ringers for free.

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Is it dangerous? - Will I get carried up to the ceiling?

This is a misconception - based on slapstick portrayals of bellringing in films. Bellringers are not in the habit of getting carried up to the ceiling. It would only be possible to be lifted up if one deliberately hung onto the rope at the wrong time. All learners are taught basic safety procedures (including letting go!) and if these are followed then ringing is a reasonably safe hobby. No-one is left to handle a bell on their own until they can do so safely without assistance. The bells themselves are securely mounted in a very strong oak and steel frame with two solid floors between them and the ringers.

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What is so special about bell ringing? - surely it’s just pulling a rope?

Ringing bells is very ancient indeed - and is found all over the world.

However Change Ringing on English Church bells is something very special and unique. It is only practised in this country and in a few churches in places like Australia, Canada and the United States - influenced by the Anglican Church.

At the end of the Middle Ages, and during the Tudor period, a special technology was developed for mounting the bells so that they could turn full circle while ringing. This enabled ringers to gain precise control of the bells so that they could be rung at a particular speed - in time with other bells, bigger or larger (tuned to a musical scale) - and could be made to change speed to sound before or after other bells.

These developments made it possible for the glorious sound of "Rounds" - the repeated rhythmic pattern of a descending scale which is so characteristic of English wedding bells - to be rung. Then "Change Ringing" developed so that regular and rhythmic patterns could be rung. The wonderful swirling pattern of bells ringing out over the countryside from an English Church tower is a unique part of our heritage. It is a very special part of our English Heritage - as "English" as "fish and chips" and "morris dancing"!

You will not hear it anywhere on the Continent. The great bells in Continental Churches cannot be made to ring at particular speed in time with the other bells. The Continental bells produce a glorious random sound because all the bells all ring at different speeds and clash and strike over each other. There is nothing wrong with the sound - but this is totally different from our special ancient art of English Change Bell Ringing. You may also hear the beautiful sound of a Carillon of Bells in some parts of the Continent. Carillons are sets of bells are hung mouth downwards and struck by hammers driven either by a keyboard device or an automated mechanism. The sound is very interesting - and fairly "dainty" - but again is very different from our English Tradition.

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What are the benefits?

It’s good gentle, rhythmic, physical exercise. It also helps the concentration and provides excellent mental exercise. It’s very sociable and good for team-work - imagine trying to play a tune on a giant xylophone with each note being played by a different person. It is interesting and absorbing, great fun, relaxing but challenging and for the most part non-competitive. An ideal hobby for people of any age - from school-children to the retired.

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I don’t suppose I’m strong enough!

This is a common misunderstanding. Change ringing bells are heavy (in some cathedrals they are very heavy indeed - Liverpool Cathedral has one weighing 4 tons - over 4,000 kilograms!). In most churches they typically weigh several hundredweight (cwt). It would not be possible to ring them by brute force or strength. Instead the English method of ringing relies on the weight of the bell itself doing most of the work. The ringer learns the skill of gently applying pressure to the rope at the correct point in the rotation, firstly to bring the bell to stop at the required height each stroke, and secondly to add just enough extra impetus to the swinging bell to ensure that it rises to the required height at the next stroke. Even quite young children can be taught to ring bells (Note that many towers cannot teach anyone under the age of 12 [sometimes 10]- for insurance reasons).

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But I’m not musical

This is another common misunderstanding. There are plenty of good ringers who are tone deaf! Of course a peal of bells is a musical instrument (very loud and public - and entirely without amplification!) but you don’t have to be musical to ring them. A sense of rhythm helps - but this can be developed during the learning process

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But I’m not good at mathematics!

This is an interesting question which people sometimes ask us. The idea probably comes from people seeing those funny tables of numbers that advanced ringers study when they are learning a new change ringing "method". But in fact no special knowledge of mathematics is needed to learn change ringing. It consists of simple changes whereby the order in which the bells are rung is altered progressively as a pair of bells which are ringing one after the other "change place". By learning a set of simple rules as to when to change, we learn a "method".

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Can anyone ring? Do I have to be a certain age - or very clever?

Most people can learn to ring. As we have seen, you don’t have to be particularly strong, or musical, or mathematical. You need to be able to stand for a few minutes and be capable of catching the rope at the right time. You must also be able to lift your hands above your head. You certainly don’t have to be at all clever to learn. Many of us are fairly simple souls! You just need to be able to follow basic instructions and to pay attention to what you are doing.

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What about disabilities?

It depends on the disability. Blind people make excellent ringers. This indicates that hearing is the most useful faculty for ringing well. People who have hearing difficulties can also learn to ring, but those who are profoundly deaf have to rely entirely on "rope-sight" - watching the other ropes and judging when to pull in order to "strike" the note in the right place. This is not so easy as relying on hearing - but not impossible. Other ringers with particular disabilities may be able to learn to ring - depending on their disability and on the layout of the tower. For example, a person unable to climb a narrow spiral staircase would unfortunately not be able to get into some ringing chambers. However there are many churches where the ringing is from the Ground Floor - so access would be possible.

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Will it damage my hearing?

It shouldn’t do! Of course the noise up in the room where the bells are housed is very loud indeed. But we normally have no reason to go anywhere near the bells when they are ringing. Most bellringing towers have the bells a long way above the ringers and with two solid floors in between. Down in the ringing chamber the sound of the bells is not particularly loud. It is usually loud enough that the ringers can hear the bells (otherwise it would be difficult to ring) but it is quiet enough that a person can easily carry on a conversation in a normal voice.

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How will it help me keep fit?

It is good rhythmic exercise which stimulates the heart-rate and breathing. Climbing the steps up to the ringing chamber is also good exercise and additionally helps tone the leg muscles - which are not used so much during ringing itself! It is said that ringing is no more demanding than cleaning shoes. This may be true - depending on how dirty the shoes are and how many pairs of shoes are to be cleaned! It is certainly a much more enjoyable keep-fit exercise than cleaning a pair of shoes!!

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What sort of time commitment do I have to make?

Most towers practice on one evening a week for about an hour and a half. It is good to practice as regularly as possible in order to ensure steady progress. Accomplished ringers are expected to help out with the ringing before Sunday service, whenever they are available to do so. In most towers this is usually once each Sunday. Occasionally there will be a wedding, usually on a Saturday.

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How long does it take to learn?

This depends on the learner, and how much time they can commit.

We often find that younger people pick it up more quickly but this is not universally true. Older people, for example those who are coming up to retirement or have already retired, usually find that they pick up this absorbing hobby reasonably quickly.

An average learner might expect to be able to ring a bell without assistance after several weeks of learning. To be able to ring "Rounds" fairly accurately (keeping reasonable time with the rest of the band) usually takes several months from starting to learn. The next steps into "Called Changes" and simple "Method Ringing" will take several months.

Within a few months of starting, most ringers are able to get by sufficiently well to be able to contribute to Sunday Service Ringing. Many ringers are content just to stay at a fairly elementary level and just ring for services at the local tower. Others are keen to go on learning ever more complicated methods and, after some years, to progress to ringing the more tricky bells such as the great cathedral rings of 12 bells.

Those who enjoy exploring new challenges find that there is no end to learning about English change ringing. There is always something new to learn and one lifetime would not be enough to learn and master all the methods that have been devised.

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I’m anxious in new situations - Will people look down on me as a learner?

Not at all! Ringers are delighted when new people start to learn. You will always find a welcome in any tower. Ringers tend to come from a wide variety of backgrounds as well. Ringing is a great social leveller. "Showing off" is not respected in ringing circles - so there is no pressure to pretend that you are better than you are.

Note: When you first visit do not be put off if ringers look serious and intense and do not talk to you when they are ringing. This does not mean they are grumpy or anti-social. They may be concentrating hard - but enjoying it really! The only person who normally speaks during the ringing is the one who is "conducting" - otherwise it would be very confusing and distracting. You may hear the conductor shouting to put someone right! But this is normal practice to make sure that none of the words are lost. No offence is meant.

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Do I have to be a church-goer?


At different times in the history of English Church bell ringing, the ringers have had different amounts of involvement in the life of the church. In one of the heydays of ringing - the eighteenth century - many of the ringers never went to church and treated it purely as an interesting hobby. Then in the nineteenth century there was a swing in the opposite direction and the rowdier elements in the ringing chamber were expected to behave in a more seemly way. Barrels of beer in the belfry were frowned on - and people were fined for ringing wearing their spurs and fancy headgear! Actually the fines were usually paid in beer!!

Nowadays the majority of ringers are also church members. But not everyone is. Some may belong to a different christian denomination. Others may not be religious at all, or may follow another spiritual path. There is no compulsion to attend the services and even those who do attend may not stay for all the services that they ring for. You will be welcome to come and ring - whether you are also an active member of the local Anglican church - or whether you just come to help out with the ringing.

Everybody who rings is naturally respectful of the church that provides the bells and all ringers ring as well as they can to ensure that the bells are rung well for the services.

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So what is the purpose of ringing?

In the strictest sense the primary purpose of the Ringing is to announce the services and call the parishioners to attend them. This is right and proper.

In a broader sense the bells produce a pure musical sound that stirs the hearts of all who hear them. The uplifting sound transcends any artificial boundaries of sect or religion. Most of us love to hear them whatever our beliefs - because they stir something deep, perhaps something deeply spiritual, in all of us. And we are grateful and want to continue the tradition.

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What sort of traditions are there?

There are many interesting bellringing traditions - too many to enumerate here.

Bellringing was traditionally used to announce or signal special events. Different patterns of bells were used for flood or fire warnings. A bell was rung in most towns to warn people to dowse their fires for the night (French "couvre feu" - which is the origin of our word "curfew") . Another bell would have been used to warn people that the towns water supply had become polluted - perhaps by a dead animal in the well (the origin of the rhyme "Ding Dong Bell, Pussy’s in the Well"). Much of this is now just a folk memory. However many towers still ring for Harvest and New Year - continuing a very ancient tradition. The bells also ring out to announce times of great joy - such as weddings, or to express sorrow - as in the case of the dignified "half-muffled" ringing, sometimes used at funerals.

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Whereabouts can one ring bells?

In the South-Western district of the Essex Association of Change Ringers, where the person who wrote this FAQ rings, there are towers at Barking, Barkingside, Chigwell, Chigwell Row, Dagenham, Epping, Havering-atte-Bower, Hornchurch, Ilford, Leyton, Leytonstone, Loughton, Romford, Walthamstow St Saviours, Walthamstow St Marys, Wanstead, West Ham and Woodford.

In Essex there are nearly 200 towers where one can ring and over 5,000 towers in England and Wales. So there is no shortage of opportunity to ring wherever you are. If you are on holiday in a different part of the country you can always find out where and when the local ringing is and help out the local band.

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Will I be able to ring for the Millennium?

Yes - if you start soon!

In the run-up to the Millennium the Government has put aside a sum of money for refurbishing bells in towers which have become unringable and need repairs. In parallel with this there is a campaign, led by the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers to encourage as many recruits to learn as possible. This is in order that there are enough ringers to ring in the Millennium in every tower in the country! At the moment there are many towers which have a fine ring of bells but no ringers to ring them. The "Ring in 2000" Project will only be successful if more ringers can be recruited quickly and trained.

As we have seen, one cannot learn to ring overnight. Some people may be tempted to wait until just a few weeks before the Millennium and then think "how nice it would be to ring in the Millennium". Unfortunately, that will be too late! Don’t forget, if you miss this chance you will have to wait another thousand years!! If you want to be a Millennium Ringer you need to start to learn fairly soon in order to reach a useful standard.

Please don’t put it off! Come and join in the fun!!

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I’m interested - how can I learn to ring?

Bellringing is a practical craft which you can only learn by doing it. The best way to learn is to turn up at your local tower on a practice night and ask to be taught.

If you need help in trying to find a suitable tower where you could learn to ring please e-mail me, Anthony, at <anthony.brickell@bl.uk>. I will do my best to put you in touch with a local tower.

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This page created by Anthony Brickell.

E-mail: anthony.brickell@bl.uk

Revised: 2/2/99