The Basics of Bell-ringing

Although I hope you’re pleased to hear bells as you walk to church on a Sunday morning, you may have only the vaguest notion of what is going on. Here’s what happens.

If ringers stood around hitting bells with hammers, they could play tunes. Instead the sound is made by the clapper hitting the side of the bell as it swings back and forth, which implies a steady rhythm on each note, and tunes are impossible. If that was the full story, the order in which you started to ring would be repeated over and over. In practice though, you can make a bell ring slightly faster or slower; and on that simple fact rests the art of change-ringing.

What’s it like? The churches in Settle and Giggleswick each have eight bells, No. 1 being the highest and No 8. the lowest. But let’s say you’re just ringing on six bells. We always start with ‘rounds’, repeatedly running down the scale, 1-2-3-4-5-6. Now, because you can only ring slightly faster or slower, you can’t suddenly change the order to (say) 4-6-1-3-5-2, but you can switch places with your neighbour. Take ‘plain hunt on five’ for example. After a few rounds the conductor calls ‘Go plain hunt on five’. The 6th bell, called the tenor, stays at the back, but the other even-numbered bells start to ring slightly faster, and the odd bells slower. If you’re on bell No. 4, you’ll be in 4th place during rounds, but as you progress through Plain Hunt you’ll ring in 3rd place, then 2nd place, then 1st place. Then you slow down and change direction, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th place. Then you change direction again to find yourself back in 4th place, and the method is complete.

Is it easy or difficult? Both. After a little practice you should be able to handle the bell well enough to ring rounds. On the other hand I doubt whether the best ringers in the country, after ringing for decades, would claim to know all there is to know. This is because methods should include every possible combination of the bells being rung. On five bells for example there are 120 such combinations, and Plain Hunt features only 10 of them. To hear the rest, you have to ring a much more complicated method, of which hundreds have been written. Then what about 6 bells, 7, 8, 9? It’s endless!

Surely you need muscle power? Not really. Children often start ringing aged nine or younger, and who knows, might still be ringing when they’re old and frail.

Is it a big commitment? It’s flexible. We might have ten or more ringers on a Sunday, each having a turn, but we can still do something with only four. On the other hand you won’t progress if you don’t ring regularly.

Would I get to ring in different towers? Absolutely. On some Sunday mornings some of us might start at Settle, then nip up to Horton, then back down to Giggleswick. The truly obsessed can turn up at practice nights in Horton on Monday, Kirkby Malham on Tuesday, Giggleswick on Thursday and Settle on Friday. Indeed, wherever you are in the country, you’ll be made welcome on practice night at the local church.

For more information contact Ian Boocock, (Giggleswick) on 01524 251338, or me, Paul Clark, (Settle) on 01729 825277.