Knowing the ropes

York Minster's bellringers will ring in the New Year across the city tonight – and in the American capital. Michael Hickling went to see them prepare.

It's 99 winding steps up the south west tower, and people arrive in ones and twos in the bell-ringing chamber out of breath.

The older ones stand for a moment with their

hands on their hips, their night's work still to begin.

If it's Tuesday, it must be practice night at York Minster.

Ropes are caught in suspended loops at the

ceiling and the chief bellringer releases the device holding them so that 14 ropes drop in a rough

circle ready for use. Only 12 are ever pulled at

one time.

Ten bellringers approach their appointed rope and stand gravely in front of it for a moment as if preparing for the hangman, then, without any obvious signal, begin. It seems quite off-the-cuff, bearing in mind that any blunders are going to be picked up (by anyone who knows anything about bell ringing ) across broad swathes of the Vale of York.

As elbows and shoulders are bent, the heads of

one or two bellringers start to nod in a jerky, slightly distracted fashion as the ropes shoot upwards

through their hands towards the ceiling. After

about a quarter of an hour the ringing master,

Tim Bradley, says, "Stand", and before anyone

has a chance to make a final satisfied nod to a neighbour adds, "You can do better than that."

Standards are high up here. These people are at the top of the ringing tree, which is why half of them will be in America tonight to ring in the New Year at the invitation of the Cathedral in Washington DC.

What they are doing is ringing bells in mathematical patterns to create a seamless rhythm rather than a tune (which is what carillons with fixed bells do). This is not so much complicated as fiendishly, mind-numbingly intricate.

The ringers can vary their timing by how hard they pull on their rope, that winds round the rim of a wheel attached to a bell they cannot see. A pull brings the bell over the balance, swings it through the mouth-down position, and back up to mouth-up just over the balance the other way. As the bell comes to a rest, the clapper catches up and the bell sounds.

Knowing where you are in a ringing sequence is called "rope sight" and the "sallie" – the fluffy red

thing at hand level – acts both as a grip and as a

visual aid. The 12 Minster bells have 479,001,600 different changes, and the sequences – called

"methods" have to be memorised. To ring a

full peal at the Minster takes four to four-and-a-half hours and involves 5,088 changes rung in strict order without repeating any. Getting that wrong half way through must result in some very black looks from colleagues.

The equivalent must be skiing down a steep slope and solving a tricky mathematical equation in your head before reaching the bottom.

A pile of books on a chair confirmed what an intellectual puzzle this is. The books contained coloured diagrams with a visual representation of a change and, in their bewildering complexity, heightened the impression to an outsider of bellringing as a freemasonry which recruits at an early age.

The Minster ringers range from early teenage to early seventies, and as the evening wore on it became increasingly sociable. A baby was brought up the winding stairs by its parents to emphasise the impression of the practice session as an extended-family outing.

One of the most senior in the team, the Rev Giles

Galley, is a former vicar of Strensall. "I started ringing when I was 12 in St Neots," he says. "It was 1943

and the wartime ban on bells being rung had just

been lifted."

Ruth Sanderson, 13, a pupil at Huntington School, was ploughing through her homework in the intervalsbetween the 10-15 minute ringing stints or "touches". "I've been doing it for five years – my dad started me off," she says. "It's like riding a bike. Once you've learned and do it by yourself, you don't stop."

Do you need muscles to do it? She shrugged. "I'm not particularly strong."

Smaller bells are easier to pull but require a higher degree of skill. The largest, the tenor bell which acts like a drumbeat in the rhythm, weighs three tons and takes more physical effort. The sound doesn't knit until a second after the pull, which accounts for all that slightly alarming nodding and frowning.

The bells they ring are made from 77 per cent copper and 23 per cent tin. This is virtually the same as gun metal, and at various times of national crisis in the past, importing bells has been forbidden in case they were cast into guns.

The diameter of a bell and the thickness of the metal determines its harmonics. A company called Taylor in Loughborough perfected harmonic tuning, with a method of machining the inside of the bell to alter the note emitted.

The present Minster bells were made at the peak of the Taylor output and are among the finest ever cast. From the 18th century onwards, a new peal has been required at the Minster every 70 or 80 years, but these could last indefinitely.

The indestructible quality of the product, combined with a decline in church worship, resulted in a fall-off of orders for Taylor that was so severe they nearly went out of business in the 1970s.

David Potter was the ringing master for 25 years and is now honorary life vice president of the York Minister Society of Change Ringers. He learned in London 36 years ago, and came to York to train to be a teacher in 1969. He is now a bell engineer who hangs church bells. This is not as sedate as it sounds. He has suffered a fractured spine and crushed vetebrae when a floor collapsed.

The week after we met, David was off to Denmark, at the invitation of a lady bell ringing pioneer, to measure up the tower at a church in the Esberj region. This is unusual since change ringing is only found in those parts of the world where the English settled.

"It started as a sport for the gentry or, to be

more exact, a mathematical-musical art form," says David. "In 1684, it was listed in a book as one of

the six suitable pastimes for the sons of the gentry along with things you'd expect like hunting, shooting and fishing.

"It's an abstract form of music to learn, once it's in your head you never forget. Once you are party to the code you are locked into it. You need to be fairly relaxed and have a sense of rhythm and, to succeed, you've got to put the time in."

Crowds will gather tonight in expectation at the front of the Minster as midnight approaches. But this is only a fairly recent innovation. "The Minster stopped the New Year being rung in in 1936, after some drunks threw bottles at the Great West window," adds David. "I started it again in 1986."

Normally on New Year's Eve, the Minster bellringers invite members of the congregation into the bell ringing chamber for drinks and nibbles. Tonight, David won't be there to welcome them. He is one of the 15 who has taken a five-day trip to ring in New Year at Washington DC Cathedral, one of only 50 places to do change ringing in the United States.

But by now the American capital will already know what the York team are made of. They did a full peal a couple of nights ago, which took four hours.