Gloucester Branch of Church Bellringers

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Church Bell Ringing - part 1

Ringing bells by rope and wheel is an Art and Science almost exclusive to the British Isles. The majority of the remaining towers with bells hung in ‘English fashion’ are to be found in Australia and the USA.

The term ‘ringing’ refers to a bell that is swung full-circle, all other modes of sounding a bell being known as ‘chiming’. A ringing bell is securely mounted on a beam, or headstock, with pivots at each end to allow the bell to swing. A wooden wheel is fixed to one end of the headstock, its radius being generally a little greater than that distance from the pivot to the lip of the bell. The bell-rope is attached to the wheel near its uppermost part and runs in a specially formed groove around the wheel’s rim. This simple arrangement allows the ringer to ring a bell many times his weight relatively easily. Ultimately, after expending suitable effort, to ring the bell full circle – that is, from the upside down position of the bell, through 360 degrees, to the upside down position again. The bell is never rung through more than 360 degrees, and therefore the direction of swing must alternate to continue the ringing process; the ringer being able to control the bell at the beginning and end of each swing, or ‘stroke’, when there is little or no weight in the bell.

The bell-rope is specially made for the purpose, and incorporates a fluffy part, known as the ‘sallie’, for about 3 or 4 feet of the rope's length. As the bell swings in opposite directions the position of the rope alters accordingly. At one stroke, the ‘backstroke’, the bell winds the rope fully round the wheel, and the ringer consequently holds the end of the rope to stop the bell going further than he wishes it to. At the other stroke, the ‘handstroke’, the rope almost fully unwinds from the wheel, leaving the ringer to catch and hold the sallie partway up its length to exercise the same control, whilst at the same time retaining the rope's end in readiness for the next backstroke. The sallie increases the grip the ringer requires on the rope at handstroke, and for the backstroke the rope’s end is doubled up and tucked in to achieve the same function in addition to providing length adjustment if necessary.

The facility to stop the bell in the upturned position is catered for by the provision of a stay and a slider. The stay, a wooden bar attached to the headstock at the opposite end to the wheel, is allowed to coincide with the slider bar, another piece of wood attached to the framework underneath the bell. The ringer controls this touching of the stay and slider, the event taking place at either stroke a few degrees past the 360 degrees swing limit. The arrangement is uncomplicated and efficient, allowing bells varying from a few pounds to the largest ringing bell of 82 cwt to be rung with comparative ease, and exists in the same form now as that which existed in the early 1600’s when the system started to become widespread. It is stressed, however, that a ringing bell is an extremely dangerous instrument in unskilled hands or in any position other than the mouth-downwards position, no attempt to touch bells or ropes should be made without seeking the advice or instruction of a competent bell ringer.

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A bell being run at handstroke