Our church tower is a fascinating place: in it we have some huge bells, a wonderful Victorian clock mechanism, lots of ropes and other bits and pieces - and from the top you can see Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucester Cathedral, Christ Church and St Gregory's in Cheltenham.
We work hard to keep a band of competent ringers trained and ready for action: we also welcome visiting ringers either to join us or visit for their own events. We normally practice on Wednesday nights at 7.30pm and ring for Sunday Services at about 10.30am between services - or catch us when there's a wedding on.
Our main 8 bells comprise a full peal of eight which we ring for services and special occasions. (There's also a little 'sanctus' bell which we rarely use these days since it's not in good condition)
Our Gallery has a full set of photos of bells in their lovely repainted red frame.
If you'd like to know just what to listen for when we ring our bells - how to tell if we're 'ringing them up' or 'ringing them down', or whether we're ringing 'rounds' or something else, have a look at Our Church Bells - What to Listen For.
If you'd like to come inside and see what we do when we're ringing, we'd also welcome you. Because bells are heavy and dangerous we don't usually like people to just wander in while we're ringing, but if you meet up with us on our way in, or contact us in advance (see Contacts), we'll be very happy to show you what we do.
Lastly, we'll be even more delighted if you decide to join us as a ringer. Like riding a bicycle it takes a while to learn and requires an awful lot of practice: a year to get to basic grade is about standard (yes, really!) But bell-ringers are lovely people and you'll find you have friends all round the world. And after all, it's all to do with calling people to worship and proclaiming God's love to the world around, so it's got to be worth the effort!
Our Church Bells - What to Listen For
When we ring bells we go through a number of different stages and have various tasks to do. The steps below tell you what the different stages are - so if you're listening on the ground, you can tell what's going on. You may like to come and stand in the churchyard one day and listen to the whole procedure!
1. Going up the Tower
In most churches the bells hang high in the tower and the ropes to ring them hang down into a room called the Ringing Chamber: this is where the people who ring the bells (the Ringers) stand to do their work. The Ringing Chamber is usually about half-way up the tower, though in a few churches the ropes actually come down into the church itself (e.g. Woolstone, Tredington and Burford.) In others where the bells hang in a lantern tower, the ringing chamber is right at the top (e.g. Pershore Abbey and Boston Stump.)
At Bishop's Cleeve our Ringing Chamber is only one floor up from the church, but getting there still takes you on a long climb up our amazing 15th-century staircase. First you go up a few stone stairs, then the wooden part is almost more like a ladder with steps made out of huge blocks of wood. (As the picture shows, there's also a rope handrail!) Once you've puffed your way to the top, you can unlock the door to the Ringing Chamber and go in.
2. Releasing the clock hammers and dropping the 'spider'
Most of the week our church clock rings out the Westminster sequence of chimes for the quarter-hours. To do this it has a mechanism for hitting the bells with hammers - it doesn't actually move the bells at all. If we want to ring the bells properly we have to disable this mechanism and stop the hammers striking: if we forget to do this, we'll do huge damage to the bells and the clock mechanism! If you look very carefully at the picture here you can see a couple of thin wires coming down the back wall: we pull these and fasten them to hooks in the walls to release the clock hammers. Next step is to drop the bell ropes, which are usually hooked onto a central point and lifted up well out of the way when they're not in use. We store them this way to avoid any possibility of people tripping over them, and to stop any inexperienced person coming along and thinking they'll just 'have a go'. If you don't know precisely what you're doing it can be very dangerous to anywhere near a bell, let alone to try ringing it - so we take safety very seriously.
The ends of the ropes are hooked up on a thing which we call (for obvious reasons) a Spider. It's really just a lump of wood with some coat-hooks attached to it, but the name's a good one. And once the ropes are down we're ready to start making a noise! Each bell rope has a stripy woolly part woven into it called a Sally. It's often thought that bell-ringers simply hang on to the sally and pull it all the time, going up and down with it: but in fact this is absolutely what we don't do. We catch the sally quickly, pull it, and very quickly let it go: most of the time it's flying up and down with the bell, and if you tried to hang on to it you'd end up having a really serious accident. This is why sallies are (usually) brightly coloured - so that we can see them as they race towards us and we have to catch them! Meanwhile one hand always has to keep holding the end of the rope (the 'tail end'). Coordinating the tail end and the sally, and having both hands in just the right place at the right time, is what it's all about.
The art of making Sallies is a specialist activity in its own right. And though most sallies are red, white and blue like ours they don't have to be: we know of one tower where they're red, white and green, and another where they're light blue, dark blue and white. At Prestbury they're a very pretty green, yellow and black. In general we like them to be stripey because this makes them easier to see - but there are also towers where they're solid colours like red or blue. And some towers have a mix of solid colours: one has them colour-coded to match electrical resistor colours (brown=1, red=2, etc), while Christ Church Colliers Green in London has a beautiful set set of six which match the colours of the London Underground lines!
3. Raising the Bells
When they're not being rung, bells are normally left hanging 'down' - i.e. with their 'mouths' down and the clappers hanging freely. But when we want to ring them we raise them to the 'up' position so that they're ready to swing to and fro. That way they make more noise and - perhaps surprisingly - are easier to control. The photo here shows our no 1 bell, the Treble, in a raised position ready for ringing.
Raising a bell is not simply a matter of hauling it up on a rope like a bale of straw. A bell is heavy, and it can only move backwards and forwards: even a very strong person simply couldn't raise it up simply by continuous pulling, and it probably wouldn't do the mechanism any good anyway (you can see some of the other bits in the photo here - i.e. the wooden wheels and stuff - which you might think are surprisingly delicate.) The proper way to raise a bell is to pull the rope a little at a time, making it swing to and fro, going a little further each time until you finally get it into the 'up' position. Doing this takes a lot of effort and can take up to 5 minutes for a big bell - it's really quite difficult and dangerous to rush it - so you can't ring bells if you haven't got plenty of time!
When a bell is being raised it first rings quite fast, because it isn't moving very far. But as it swings further and further each time the 'dongs' get more separated, until at the end they come quite slowly. If you're on the ground at the start of a ringing session you can hear this quite clearly, though in practice it's unusual to ring up only one bell at a time. If we were to ring the bells up one at a time it would take half an hour to get them all up, so we usually raise more than one at the same time. We could do this simply by letting everyone swing away on their own bell and raise it at their own pace, but that would be chaotic and would sound horrible: so instead, we like to raise them 'in peal', which means we ring them in the order 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 1-2-3-4 etc. This may sound easy, but when we're raising bells we have the added challenge that they're all slowing down, and since they're different weights they all slow at different rates. Some of them are also quite 'badly behaved', which is a term that covers all sorts of odd behaviours (you never knew bells had personalities, did you?) So 'ringing up in peal' is quite a challenging task.
Again if you're on the ground it's quite easy to hear us ringing the bells up in peal. First they go 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 very quickly, with the dongs almost blending into each other: then they go slower and slower, and the dongs separate out. By the end we're ringing 1---2---3---4---5---6---7---8, and then we stop for a rest! On a good day we ring up all our bells at once, but raising the bells takes a lot of skill, so not everyone is able to do it. If we only have a few ringers who can manage it we'll probably ring half the bells together, then do the other half: normally this means we'll ring up 1-3-5-7 and then do 2-4-6-8. Again, if you're standing on the ground it's quite easy to hear what's going on - and to impress your friends by explaining it to them!
Compared to raising the bells, actually ringing them is quite easy - or at least it doesn't require a huge amount of strength. It does, however, require a lot of fine control and constantly being aware of what your bell is doing: after all, when you may have up to a ton of metal swinging around above your head you don't want it going out of control!
4. Ringing the Bells
Ringing one bell on its own is a fairly simple job once you know what you're doing: but you certainly have to know just what to do with the rope and the 'sally'. If you get it wrong you can get seriously hurt and you can break the 'stay', which is part of the mechanism up above: so it's not a job for a complete novice. If you ever visit a Ringing Chamber and don't know how to ring the bells, then you must move slowly, sit quietly with both feet on the floor, and not touch any of the ropes unless you're invited to.
One bell on it's own, though, doesn't sound very exciting - in fact people normally interpret it as meaning someone has died and there's a funeral in church. Much more common is to ring all the bells cheerfully in sequence, and to vary the sequence as we go along. The sequences are called Courses, and the variations follow a clear mathematical pattern; the different patterns are called Changes, so this is called Change Ringing; and a particular sequence of Changes is called a Method.
The simplest method is Rounds, where we simply ring a course of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 over and over again. This gets a bit boring, so we don't ever ring rounds for very long: but a lot of the more complex patterns start with a few course of rounds while the ringers get into proper time with each other. Rounds are also important when someone is learning to ring: it's critical to learn just how to control the bell and get the timing right. So if you come along and listen to a practice (usually Wednesday nights at St Michael's) you'll hear a lot of rounds being rung - often quite badly!
After rounds, the simplest pattern is called Queens and goes 1-3-5-7-2-4-6-8. It's not that exciting, but it's a recognisable tune and sounds 'almost' like more complex ringing. (Supposedly it was developed for Queen Elizabeth I, who thought it a pretty tune - hence the name Queens.) The more complex methods flip the pattern over and over to make many Changes, and unless you really know what to look for you won't be able to distinguish one method from another: they have names like Steadman Doubles, Triple Bob Major, Cambridge Surprise, etc - but these take many years to learn! (On the left is a chart for one of the simpler ones - Plain Bob Minor - which is rung on 6 bells.)
The best thing to do if you're listening is simply to relax and enjoy it, but particularly to listen out for some rounds at the start and - sometimes - at the end. The ringers will try to ring a complete Method before they stop: though sometimes they don't have time to complete it, or just occasionally they lose their way and have to stop in a rather grumpy muddle half way through!
If they get it right, the bells will all stop together at some point and there'll be a sudden feeling of silence around you. But this depends on all the ringers controlling their bells well enough to 'set' them all in the 'up' position at the same time - and things don't always work out that way. So sometimes you'll hear one bell ring a couple of times after the rest have stopped - as if they were ringing 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-----3---------------3. The ringers don't do this because it's clever: the truth is there's some person up in the tower thinking 'oh bother, I set my bell wrong and now everyone thinks I'm stupid!'
5. BRinging the bells BACK down
At the end of a session of ringing we do the reverse of raising the bells 'up' - yes, we lower them 'down'! You might think this would be easy - just get the bell swinging and obviously it'll come down of its own accord after swinging about for a while. But this would sound horrible, and we don't really want a ton of metal swinging around with no control. So just like when we take the bells 'up', we bring them down in a carefully controlled way.
The technique is basically to ring them as usual but to shorten the rope very slightly each time - so that every time the bell swings up again it goes just a small amount less than the time before. After about 5 minutes of this the bell is 'down', and it's safe for us to go home. As before, bringing one bell down is a feat in itself, partly because you end up with a lot of rope swinging around and you have to know what to do with it. But again, bell-ringers like to make it tidy, so they bring the bells down 'in peal'. If you stand listening you'll hear the reverse of the bells going up: first a well-defined ring of rounds (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8) but then the 'dongs' get faster and faster until they blend into a sort of rainbow blur of sound. It's tempting when you hear this to think the ringers must be putting more and more effort in to create a sort of 'panic' effect, but in fact the reverse is true: by the end the bells are just swinging gently and the ringers are having an easy time!
To end - and this is really impressive - the ringers sometimes let the bells ring three courses of rounds, then stop them ringing for a course while they just swing quietly, and then ring a final pattern as the bells come to a halt. What you hear is: blur of fast rounds - 12345678 - 12345678 - 12345678 - silence - 12345678 - silence. The final sequence is usually 12345678 at St Michael's, but by this point everything's moving gently and the ringers can quite easily ring any sequence they like. A favourite on 6 bells is 1-5-3-4-6, with 2 not sounding - which plays the tune of Pop goes the Weasel - or on 5 bells it's 1-4-2-3-5 which is a close approximation. Whatever the tune, it's very impressive to watch.
If you'd like to come and listen from outside, and follow what we do, you're always welcome. We normally practice on Wednesday nights at 7.30pm and ring for Sunday Services at about 10.30am - or catch us when there's a wedding on. If you'd like to come inside and see what we do when we're ringing, we'd also welcome you. Because bells are heavy and dangerous we don't usually like people just wandering in while we're ringing, but if you meet up with us on our way in, or contact us in advance (see Contacts) we'll be happy to have you join us.
Bells & Church Clock - Technical Information
Weights, notes and dates of the bells are shown in the table below:
|Bishop's Cleeve, Glos
S Michael & All Angels
||John Taylor & Co
||John Taylor & Co
||Abraham I Rudhall
||Abraham I Rudhall
||John Taylor & Co
||Abraham I Rudhall
Further details of the bells are available at the Dove's Guide entry for Bishop's Cleeve web pages.