The bells, the bells..! (And how to ring them)

Teacher: Chris Wardell

From: Milton Lilbourne, Wiltshire

Lesson: How to ring a church bell

We were so excited about this lesson, partly because we never thought we’d get the chance to learn bell ringing, and partly because Chris sold it so well in his first email. “How about learning the 400 year-old art/skill of swinging a lump of metal the weight of a small car, 30 feet above your head?” he wrote.

When we arrived at the beautiful St Peter’s church, Chris hurried outside to greet us, along with his wife Anne (who’d brought tea and chocolates), and what appeared to be the entire population of Milton Lilbourne. The bell ringers were out in force, eager to show us their ancient pastime and seeming quite astonished that three people in their late twenties were paying an interest.

St Peter's Church in Milton Lilbourne, where the teach us team learned how to ring a church bell

Nick from teach us with Chris Wardell, our bell ringing instructor

After a brief demo and a tour of the tower, Chris introduced us to the ropes and guided us through the basics as we nervously gave them a few tugs. He taught us the back stroke, then moved onto the hand stroke and eventually asked us to put the two together. Fortunately for the residents of Milton Lilbourne, the clapper was prevented from making a sound by a cleverly positioned piece of wood while we practised. A few hours passed as we learnt the rhythm and tried to stand the bell (which means to rest the bell on its stopper) before we were finally allowed to release the clapper and make some noise.  

Sounding the bells was a feeling unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Knowing that we were in control of a half tonne lump of metal was empowering, and being able to create a tune with just half a day’s tuition gave us a huge confidence boost which we’ll carry on into the lessons ahead. Bell ringing is something that everybody should try at least once, especially if they’re in easy travelling distance of Milton Lilbourne. Chris’s passion (which is evident in the interview below) brought the experience to life, and left us craving more well after we’d left the church.

Chris Wardell, Milton Lilbourne's Tower Captain and teach us teacher

What have you taught us today?

You’ve learnt bell ringing. You can all ring a church bell efficiently and you picked it up with incredible speed. We’re all delighted with progress – it’s been a super day!

Can you tell us one interesting fact about bell ringing?

So few people know anything about it whatsoever. It’s a totally different language. You’ve learnt what a Sally is, a back stroke (and not the swimming variety), a hand stroke, bob doubles… it’s endless! Bell ringing is something you can learn how to do, then keep learning for years. We’ve done so little ourselves – we’re on page three of a book of about 100 pages.

What level are you at?

I can ring some basic methods, but the real experts are the ones who can handle surprise and variation. There are ringers out there who can get halfway through a method, then join it onto another one at a moment’s notice. A peal, which takes three hours, might contain 10 methods that change regularly. Expert ringers are able to switch seamlessly from any point of the ‘Double Oxford’ into another method such as ‘Reverse Canterbury’, which is mindblowing.

How and when did you learn?

In 1977, in this village, an old chap who happened to be the town Tower Captain at the time walked past my front garden and said “it’s about time you come down and learn bell ringing”, so I did. I thought, “yeah I can pull a rope like anybody else”, but quickly found it’s not that easy. It took me weeks to learn how to just control the thing, but I eventually got hooked. It’s just one of those things that you don’t know how much you’ll love until you give it a go.

Matt from teach us showing how to ring a church bell

Who’s had the biggest influence on your bell ringing career?

Bill Cracknell taught me all I know. He was an astonishing man who could ring two bells, one in each hand, doing the back stroke and the hand stroke with the tail ends of the ropes tied around his hands. He could practically ring ‘Bob Doubles’ by himself if we didn’t have enough ringers.  

Why do you like it so much?

Well, it gives you loads of mates. As a ringer, you could go to Llandudno or wherever you fancied and ring their bells on a Sunday. If I go along to another tower, they might say to me, ‘what can you ring?’ and I’ll say, ‘oh I can ring Bob Doubles or Reverse Canterbury’ and they’ll say, ‘grab a rope’, and off I’d go. It’s just that camaraderie of bell ringers around the country that I love so much. They’re a terrific crowd.

What’s been your proudest moment?

When my wife Anne said she’d like to start ringing! There have also been a couple of occasions when we’ve hit a whole touch of ‘Bob Doubles’ perfectly. The idea of bell ringing is to get the striking dead even – ‘boing, boing, boing’ – and stand the bell at the end. If that goes right it gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment. It’s like getting an orchestra to hit every note and get the beat spot on.

How much teaching of bell ringing have you done?

I’ve been teaching for 20 odd years, but the number is limited because there haven’t been many people that have come along. A lot think “why would I want to go bell ringing?” because it’s not much in the public domain. I’d say that I’ve probably taught 20-25 people (plus you three) now.

One of the church bells rung by the teach us team

Why do you like teaching?

I like passing on stuff that I think is wonderful to know. If I can pass on a skill to somebody, I always take the opportunity. I used to teach woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing at a school and think it’s very good to teach.

Can anyone learn this?

Yes. I’ve seen some strange people ringing church bells, and very well too. It requires a certain amount of body weight, of course, but most people weigh enough when they get to the age of 10 or 12. Older people take a lot longer to learn, but they’ll still get it if they want to!

What are the most common mistakes a novice might make?

It’s not very common to see people holding on, thankfully. Otherwise they’d end up six feet in the air! In actual fact, there aren’t many mistakes that are all that common. When you don’t hold the rope tight, or grip it properly with your fingers, that’s called a handling error but those things can be eradicated in no time.

How long would it take to become proficient?

Usually about six months to a year, but with you three I think you’d be ringing on Sunday if we had another session like today. It’s the hours you put in that are vital, and you’ve certainly put in some hours today!

How were we as students?

Absolutely super. From the heart, it’s been a pleasure teaching you. Apart from the odd look up, you listened to what I told you to do and it worked.

Chris Wardell, Tower Captain and bell ringing teacher, showing the teach us team the ropes

Who’s the most skilled person you know?

I know a guitar player who’s pretty good, and a guy who can sail a boat, capsize it and bring it up without any problem. Most people are fairly normal on surface though – you don’t know what they can do until you get talking. One of the people that used to ring here told me she had a bonding day at work, which involved pairing up and telling your partner something about yourself that you rarely tell anyone else. She told this other woman she was a bell ringer and she laughed her head off! You just don’t often tell people you’re a bell ringer, probably because it’s a bit quirky. Perhaps we should start telling people more though, because it’s also an amazing thing to do.

Is there another skill you wish you had?

To be able to play a musical instrument. I’ve got a saxophone and I say I don’t have the time to play it, but it’s really just a matter of priorities. I could not come here every week or not watch Mastermind, so I obviously don’t wish I could play enough because otherwise I’d find the time. But when I pop my clogs that’s something I’m sure I’ll regret not having done. A friend of mine once said you only ever regret the things you don’t do, which makes me feel like I should go home immediately and get the saxophone out.

Alice from teach us laughs while trying out new skill

How to grip a bell rope, as shown to teach us by Tower Captain Chris Wardell

Chris Wardell teaches Nick from teach us how to pull a rope properly

What we learned

  • Don’t look up! Try to focus your eyes forward and look beyond the rope (a bit like how a juggler doesn’t look at each juggling ball). When you come to ringing methods, you’ll need to be able to look around.
  • Don’t hold on! We accidentally held on as the rope was flying up to the rafters and will never try to compete with a 0.5 tonne lump of metal again.
  • The fluffy section of rope is called a ‘Sally’. Chris didn’t know why, but the internet suggests that it’s derived from the French ‘sauler’ and now ‘sauter’ which means ‘to jump’. Another suggestion is that it comes from the French ‘saillir’, which means ‘bulge’.
  • Bell ringers aren’t necessarily religious and don’t need to have any affiliation with the church at all.
  • Bells are tuned on a giant metal lathe and have to be transported to Whitechapel whenever they need retuning. The Bell Foundry at Whitechapel is the world’s most famous, responsible for producing Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.