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A guide to church bell ringing


Church bell ringing is a thriving ancient English art that still plays an important part in community life. Nationally, there are about 40
,000 ringers who regularly ring for Sunday services as well as for special occasions, anniversaries and weddings. But more ringers are always needed. Everyone is welcome to learn, no matter what their age or abilities. So if you are interested, read on and find out what ringing is all about.

The present method of ringing began in the 17th Century when churches restored bells that had been lost or destroyed during the dissolution of the Monasteries. Before this, bells were chimed randomly, as still happens on the Continent. However, now a new mechanism was used. The bells were mounted with full wheels which allowed them to rotate through an entire 360 degrees to produce each sound. This revolutionary change meant that bells weighing several hundredweight could be controlled very precisely with minimal physical effort, allowing ringers to produce a more even sound. This heralded the start of “change ringing”, the ringing of bells in pre-defined patterns of changes, called “methods”. Many of the methods that were composed then are still rung today. So whenever you hear bells ringing, think of the sound as a continuing tradition, which dates back many hundreds of years.


Initially the bell mouth faces downwards. In this position the bell is said to be “down”. By pulling on the rope, which is attached to the wheel, the bell is gradually swung higher and higher.

When the bell swings round so far that the mouth faces upwards, it can be brought to rest, or “stood”. Now the bell is said to be “up” and is ready for

With each pull of the rope the bell rotates a full circle, first one way and then the other. These two pulls, or “strokes” are given different  names, the “backstroke” and the “handstroke”. At the end of each revolution the bells sounds once.


The bells start by ringing down the scale 1 2 3 4 5 6.
This is called “Rounds”. To vary the tune, one of the ringers, called the Conductor, will call a change in order e.g. “3 follow 1”
would produce 1 3 2 4 5 6, then perhaps “5 follow
2” giving 1 3 2 5 4 6. this is known as “Call Changes”.

Over the years, ringers have devised patterns such that each bell changes its position by no more than one place every time it rings. This system of arranging the changes is called “Method Ringing”.

There are many methods, which vary from simple to the very complex. Ringers memorise these methods by learning the “line”. The diagram shows an example of a method called Grandsire Doubles. A line is drawn through the position of the third bell starting with rounds at the beginning and finishing back in rounds at the end. Can you see the pattern of the other bells?

This method consists of 30 changes and is rung on the first 5 bells, with the tenor coming last every time. The maximum number of changes possible on 5 bells is 120, which take about 5 minutes to ring. On 12 bells there a
re 479,001,600 different changes. To ring all these would take about 37 years, so you can see that method ringing can present some interesting challenges! 


Church bells are cast from an alloy of copper and tin. This special alloy enables the bell to produce a resonant sound and at the same time makes it strong enough to withstand being struck with a clapper.

 A ring of bells in a tower ranges in number from 3 to 16, although it is usually 6 or 8. The lightest bell is called the treble and the heaviest the tenor. 

The weight of the bells varies between towers. In the Surrey Association, the lightest tenor bell is hung at Walworth and weighs 3 cwt, which is the same as 6 sacks of potatoes. The heaviest tenor bell in the Association is hung at Southwark Cathedral. It weighs 48 cwt, the same as 3 small cars! The heaviest bell hung for full circle ringing in Britain is at Liverpool Cathedral – it weighs just over 4 tons.