16 March 2011

A Novice Bell Ringer Goes to Toronto

I've been learning to ring church bells for just over a year now. That means in about 40 years time I might have got the knack. For those who are 'in the club', I am at the stage of ringing Plain Hunt, Bob Doubles (sometimes fairly reasonably) and Grandsire Doubles (on a bit of a wing and a prayer).

It's interesting ringing in other towers, so when I made plans to visit Canada I sent off an email to The Cathedral Church of St James saying I would love to visit their tower, and they very kindly said 'come along'.

There were a couple of significant factors which I perhaps should have been more wary of, the main one being that St James' bells are hung one hundred feet up in the tower and spire and their ropes fall 60ft to the ringing chamber! My home church of All Saints, Faringdon lost its spire during the civil war, and has a rather squat tower. So our bells are only one floor up from the ringing chamber.

Those extra 40ft or so of rope make a big difference to handling the bells as I soon discovered!

After the morning service at the cathedral I introduced myself to the people in the ringing chamber and was almost immediately asked to catch hold and ring. My first effort wasn't good. My second attempt was worse..

Luckily I had said right up front that I was a novice! Happily for me there were some very gracious folk there who didn't say they'd rather I went away at once and left them in peace! In fact they kindly invited me to come along to their practice night the next evening. And to their bell handling practice night on the Wednesday following. So I went along to both, and learned a lot. Some of the things I learned (or was reminded of!) were:

* That 'long straight pulls' mean having to stretch and really reach at the top of the pull.
* That (especially on long ropes) the pull should get faster as you go through, because the bell swings faster as it goes through the turns.
* I learned not to over-pull. This was tricky as I didn't really understand what was meant by it at first. Basically it means don't pull too hard - but maintain the tension in the rope to avoid snaking. Oh yes, and keep on making 'long straight pulls' at the same time!
* And I did quite a bit of practicing pulling a bell off (in two stages) and then immediately setting it at backstroke. On their tiny light treble the difficulty was not bouncing it off the stay! On their heavier bells the major effort was pulling the bell off in a controlled manner to begin with!

I really enjoyed the practice sessions, which made a massive difference to my ability and to my confidence, and I'm sure that what I learned in Toronto will help me in my ringing in the UK. I'm extremely grateful to the ringers of St James, and especially to Nick and Madeleine Cheesmen who were especially kind to me and very generous with their time and patience. I hope to be able to visit Toronto again before too long, and once again ring the bells there. Perhaps slightly less atrociously next time - and perhaps I'll start off with the practice night and not the Sunday ringing!

As a footnote, St James' bells are known as "The Bells of Old York" and are rung by members of The St. James' Cathedral Guild of Change Ringers. Anecdotal tales tell that some of the metal used in the bells came from canons melted down after the Battle of Waterloo. There is a very interesting page about the tower on the cathedral website, as well as a separate page on The Cathedral Guild of Change Ringers on which there are several photographs which give a very good representation of the length of the ropes!

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