For centuries they have been part of the landscape – Handel called England “the ringing isle” because when he moved to London, he heard bells ringing everywhere
However they have struggled with PR. Think The Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Mars advert a decade ago which featured a group of hapless monks flying up and down on the ropes.
In fact there’s much more to bellringing than some people may assume, says Martin Davies, who has been ringing master at Ripon Cathedral for 12 years, whose bells have sounded out over the city on many historic and significant occasions.
As well as being an interesting hobby, it is very sociable, and “does involve a bit of beer in a few pubs” with ringers becoming part of an extended family.
For locals it must have seemed like a return to more normal times when they heard 10 bells ringing out before last Sunday’s morning service. It was the first time bellringers were able to ring more than half a dozen bells in the cathedral since the pandemic began.
They had been hoping to ring all 12, but two regular members were self isolating. For the past 15 months the team has relied on internet-based bell ringing software and Zoom for practice, and were limited to no more than six bells on Sundays.
“If we didn’t have this technology we would have struggled to meet,” said Mr Davies, although he admits it was a bit stilted and “nowhere near the same as doing it for real”.
Mr Davies is one of the “newer” members of the band, having rung at Ripon for 25 years. “We have multi-generational families – my mum Brenda rings at Ripon as does my daughter Martha,” he adds.
Perhaps one of the reasons why bellringing is a mystery to many is that the ringers are often tucked away.
“We are very much out of sight and out of mind in most churches with the bellringing room upstairs so people don’t see what we do. They often assume it’s just a machine (or) a bunch of people randomly pulling on ropes and working up a bit of sweat,” says Mr Davies.
And although the largest bell at Ripon weighs over a tonne, and ringing a bell involves rotating it 360 degrees, it is not as much hard work as one might think.
“It is actually quite easy once you learn the technique. The really hard thing is learning to co-ordinate and ring your bell in time with the rest of the ringers.”
Having rung for 47 years Mr Davies says it is still a fascinating hobby, he’s ringing pieces he has never rung before, visiting new churches and meeting interesting people.
And although bellringing became less popular at one point, he now thinks it is coming back as people rediscover old traditions.
For Simon Ogier, his wife Alison, Rachael, 15 and Ellie, 12, who all ring at Ripon, ringing runs in the family – Mrs Ogier’s great-aunt was the first woman to ring at St Paul’s Cathedral.
As a bubble they were well placed to ring four bells ahead of a service to mark the death of Prince Philip. Mr Ogier hopes his daughters will follow in their footsteps: “I’m not going to force them, but I think if they enjoy it like I do, they will get a lot out of it.”
Change ringing is a unique form of music found in the British Isles, although there are a few bell towers in Australia, the US and South Africa.
Instead of tunes the bells are rung in orderly sequences that the ringers learn in terms of patterns and then ring from memory. The ringers are “very focussed” says Martin Davies.
“There’s hard mental work, a lot of thought going on, we are recreating the music correctly and pulling the ropes in time with our fellow ringers (and aiming for) high quality and a good performance.
“It is more of a flowing mathematical type of sound, a cascade of rhythmical bells one after each other that gives it a cheerful, happy, very traditional English sound.”