01: Starting out: handling a bell.

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Finding your way around

I started publishing these lessons in 2016 as an informal Wordpress blog before St George's had bells. Initially, they were for a couple here with whom I was doing a bit of handbell ringing. They vanished for an extended visit to Australia, I went back to Leeds and the focus shifted to someone who I was teaching to ring there on tower bells.The material is in the process of being revised and reorganised, with a view to bringing those two strands together.It involves some reordering and revision which is still in progress. By default, lessons appear in the order in which they were added, which isn't the best order. There are technical reasons why I can't alter that right now. For the correct progression: on the menu, choose the option to sort the lessons into alphabetical order.

Practical ringing topics covered so far are:

  • Handling a bell
  • Rounds and call-changes
  • Plain Hunt
  • Grandsire Doubles
  • Plain Bob Doubles
  • Treble Bob Hunting
  • Kent & Oxford Treble Bob Minor

Activities in the tower and/or on handbells are supported by various simple lessons in the theory underlying change ringing.


About the author

I'm the Tower Captain here at St George's. Before my permanent move here in 2019 I was a member and former Ringing Master of the band at Leeds Minster in West Yorkshire, a very fine and decent sized ring of twelve bells with a two-ton tenor. My wife, Catherine, sadly no longer rings with me. She died from secondary breast cancer in 2014, but she promised me that she’d be ringing perfect handbells with the two Rogers (Bailey and Green) up there in heaven. She was a remarkable lady, and six of our ten bells were given in her memory. She's a massive part of everything that's happened and is happening here.

I have two, simple aims in these lessons: to explain, in small, manageable steps, the basics of English Change Ringing, and to encourage you to have a go. We’re going to start right at the beginning, not make any assumptions, and try not to leave anything important out. The way I present things is rather different from what you’ll find in other texts. Why would I waste time just re-hashing what you can find elsewhere already?

Before you can enjoy change ringing as part of a team, you need to learn to control your bell. I was taught by Peter and Angela Smart in 1965 on the six bells of St Peter’s, Ash, on the Surrey / Hampshire border. When I started ringing, I little imagined that I was setting out on a lifetime’s interest, that I would meet my future wife whilst recruiting for the Durham University Society of Change Ringers, that my three sons would all become accomplished bellringers and that ringing would take me all over the British Isles and across the Atlantic. Peter and Angela, I owe you so much. Ringing can truly be a life-changer, and it can provide some enormous thrills along the way. I can’t think of much that I’ve done that was more exciting and challenging (or scary) than ringing on the historic three-ton twelve at St Paul’s Cathedral with the Leeds team in the Final of the National 12-bell Competition in 2009.

Handling a bell

Learning to handle a bell is like learning to ride a bike. You get there by lots of practice, coupled with some good instruction. Once you've learned to ring your bell (or ride your bike), then you can start to enjoy doing it with other people; you can go as far as you like but, if you prefer, you can keep it simple and undemanding. It's up to you.

Because the initial training is done on the end of a bell rope, what follows is simply a few notes to serve as reminders. You can refer back to them as appropriate after your session in the tower.

Health and safety.

  • Never go up amongst the bells without somebody qualified.
  • Never pull a bell-rope without checking if the bell is 'up' or 'down'
  • Only pull a bell-rope if you've been shown how to do it correctly, otherwise you could hurt yourself.
  • Wear something comfortabl to ring in, not too loose or baggy, not so tight that they restrict your movement.

Standing correctly

  • Stand so that, when you are holding the sally (the fluffy bit), the rope isn't pulled to one side or towards you. It should remain vertical.
  • Stand with one foot slightly in front of the other with the feet not too far apart, in a nice relaxed stance.
  • Look straight in front of you or even slightly downwards at all times. Never look up; it seems like an obvious thing to do, but it actually makes ringing the bell a lot harder.

Holding the tail end

  • Make sure your right hand is above your left hand with all fingers and both thumbs round the tail. The debate goes on as to whether left-handed people should ring with their hands the other way round; there are good arguments on both sides, but at Vernet we would always teach 'right-handed' unless it clearly wasn't working.
  • Try to keep your hands relaxed. There's no need to grip particularly hard. Yes, there's a small chance you might drop the rope, but your instructor will simply pick it up if that happens.
  • Always keep both hands on the tail end unless your instructor tells you to let go.
  • Hold the tailend so that, when the tail goes up to its highest point at backstroke, your arms are straight. Your instructor will show you where to hold it until you can work it out for yourself.
  • You'll find that, as you ring, your hands will move little by little on the tail end. From time to time, check that the tailend is still the right length.

 Ringing the backstroke (the tail end). 

  • Let the rope take your arms up. There's no need to lift them
  • Your arms should be straight at the start of the backstroke pull and straight at the end of it.
  • Think of guiding the rope down rather than pulling it. It requires very little effort.
  • Keep the pull positive. The trick is to make sure that the rope doesn't come down faster than your hands, so that the rope remains tight and striaght.
  • Use only your arms. The back and the knees don't need to bend at all.
  • Keep everything relaxed, particularly the shoulders.
  • At the end of the backstroke pull, your thumbs should be pointing at the floor.
  • Aim to feel the balance point as the tail reaches its highest point. Your instructor will help you with this.
  • Check that the rope is coming down in a perfectly straight line. Your instructor will help you.
  • Don't throw the rope away from you. Keep those elbows relaxed and flexible so that your hand move only on the vertical line of the rope.

 Ringing the handstroke (the sally) without the tail.

  • As with the backstroke, right hand above left.
  • Start and end with the arms straight and the hands together.
  • Remember to let go of the sally before it starts heading towards the ceiling. Your instructor will show you how to do this.
  • Aim for a nice, positive pull. Many learners are too hesitant when they pull off. Once you decide to pull, just get on and do it.
  • Again, not a lot of force is needed; just enough weight on the pull to make sure that the bell goes up to the balance at backstroke. Your instructor will give you feedback.

Holding the sally and tail together.

  • The tail remains in the left hand.
  • Make sure that the left hand is nicely relaxed.
  • With your left hand on the sally, the tail should be between your thumb and the sally, on your side of the sally, with the tail more or less horizontal.
  • Your left hand fingers will be on the other side of the sally, not gripping the tail.
  • It's a good idea to do plenty of practice getting your left hand and tail on to the sally correctly. Keep it relaxed.

Ringing one handstroke and one backstroke.

  • As your hands come off the sally, make sure they keep going down until your arms are straight, (see above). As your right hand comes off the sally, it remains in cointact with your left hand and falls naturally into the correct position above your left hand on the tail.
  • Adjust the strength of the handstroke pull so that the hands go all the way up to the balance point at backstroke. 
  • If the bell doesn't arrive at the balance point at backstroke, then the bell isn't under control. It's important to get this right; your instructor will help you.

Catching the sally

  • Initially, you'll do this without having the tail end in your hands.
  • Don't look up. You may think it helps, but it really dosen't; in fact it makes things harder.
  • It's all about getting into a nice, comfortable rhythm. Hands come up with the sally, down with the sally then take a rest.
  • Don't worry about fumbling the sally. Your instructor is there to help you.
  • After the first few pulls, which your instructor will do with the bell a bit below the balance, your aim is to catch the sally so that the bell reaches the balance point at handstroke with your arms straight.
  • Avoid grabbing at the sally. You'll end up catching it too high and the bell will be unable to reach the handstroke balance point correctly.
  • You should catch the sally just slightly higher than your hands reach when you pull off.
  • If you catch too low, the bell is likely to go past the balance point and bump the stay. Try to avoid that by using your arm muscles to put the brakes on the sally before it bumps.
  • Don't slide your hands on the sally.

Catching the sally whilst holding the tail end.

  • Make sure you pull the backstroke correctly all the way down. It's tempting not to if you're thinking about catching the sally, but it's important to do so because it makes the rope come down where you expect it to be, not somewhere else.
  • Keep your hands together, and on the vertical line of the rope at all times. Don't let your hands stray out to the side.
  • Make sure that the tail is in the correct position in your left hand on the sally (see above). It's very easy to get this wrong at first.

In fact, when you start ringing the bell on your own, it's easy to get all sorts of things wrong, because there's so much to remember. Don't worry, don't panic. Your instructor will keep on helping and encouraging you, gently correcting any faults until everything feels comfortable and you look calm and in control. After a while, everything above will become second nature. Just like riding a bike, your muscle memory will be doing the job for you, freeing up your mind to explore the wonderful world that is change ringing.

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