Ideas for a Modern Surprise Royal Repertoire

This article appeared as a three-part series in The Ringing World in 2022, issues 5800 (24th June), 5801 (1st July) and 5802 (8th July). It is not handbell-oriented, although we can aspire to ring all the methods on handbells as well as in the tower. I have restored a couple of diagrams that dropped out of the first part, and added links to Composition Library so that the full lines can easily be found to supplement the grids.

Part 1: Progression from Major

During the last few years a lot of effort has gone into updating the standard surprise major repertoire, through Simon Linford’s "Project Pickled Egg". The discussion coalesced into the core seven methods – Cambridge, Yorkshire, Superlative, Cornwall, Lessness, London and Bristol – and an extensive list of additional methods to try. The work seems to be paying off and this set of methods is gaining support, helped by the publication of Simon’s book The Core Seven and Beyond.

If the surprise major repertoire has been updated, it’s natural to think next of royal and maximus. The old standard eight surprise major methods – Cambridge, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Rutland, Superlative, Pudsey, London and Bristol – have been extended to royal and maximus, although not every method has a unique extension. In the 1970s Chris Kippin created a classic series of peal compositions from four to eight spliced surprise royal, culminating in the standard eight (with Superlative No.2 and London No.3), which cemented the canonical status of those methods. The peals are still fairly popular but it’s rare to find the standard eight royal as a practice night repertoire.

For maximus the situation is different. There aren’t clear-cut extensions of London (possibilities are Londinium, Newgate, Barford etc) or Rutland (possibilities are Belvoir and Lyddington), but there are peal compositions in reasonable extensions of the standard eight major. However, there hasn’t been a peal of the old standard eight maximus since 2011, and only three others this century. That combination of methods has no claim to be standard anymore. Instead, advanced bands have settled on a new standard eight, which we might term the Black Zone standard: Bristol, Zanussi, Phobos, Ariel, Strathclyde, Avon, Rigel and Orion. Cambridge and Yorkshire are still popular too, as entry-level methods, and Littleport Little has some currency. I should note that Avon is a delight method, but I’m not going to get hung up on the distinction between delight and surprise. I find the term "treble dodging" awkward, so I will just use "surprise" loosely unless I mention a specific delight method.

So what about royal? It hasn’t received as much attention because the most advanced peal bands tend to focus on maximus and there are relatively few practice night bands looking for good sets of royal methods to ring. I find royal interesting though, for several reasons. First, I spent a few years in the early 1990s as a member of the band at St Mary Abbotts Kensington, which did have eight-spliced royal as a practice night staple. Second, my handbell band has expanded from four to five good surprise major ringers, so we now want to make progress with surprise royal. Third, in Scotland, where I live, royal is a better aspirational target than maximus because we find it easier to get bands together and six (soon to be seven when St Paul’s Dundee are augmented) of our 20 towers have at least ten bells.

Early in the first lockdown I did a webinar about surprise royal methods, which can be viewed on my YouTube channel. Since then I have been able to try out some of the methods I discussed in Ringing Room quarter peals, with the help of my friends in the Five O’Clock Club, and I have made videos about some of them. This series of articles has similar scope to the webinar.


We can take three approaches to finding a good set of surprise royal methods. First, look at methods that follow from standard surprise major methods, as extensions or just in similar styles. In this case the starting point should be the Pickled Egg methods, and indeed Simon Linford’s book suggests some surprise royal methods on that basis. Second, consider methods that lead towards the modern standard maximus methods, in their style and structure if not as strict extensions. Third, take inspiration from the work of respected composers who have put thought into selections of methods for peals of spliced. In this short series of articles I will consider each approach in turn, and with any luck there will be some convergence between these angles.

In the rest of this first article, let’s look at royal methods that follow naturally from the core seven surprise major. Cambridge and Yorkshire are here to stay as introductory methods. Cambridge has the easier line, but Yorkshire is often found easier to ring because the coursing order is better preserved below the treble. Although Lincolnshire Major is not one of the core seven, Lincolnshire Royal is worth ringing and it’s a good choice for handbells as it’s rather easier than Yorkshire. Bristol is another enduring classic, as is London No.3 – but Triton Delight (Figure 1) is an interesting alternative devised by David Hull, having London backwork and a more musical frontwork. I have shown diagrams of grids rather than lines throughout the article, partly to save space and partly because the grids encourage observation of regular structural features that can help with learning. The grids link to Composition Library so it's easy to see how they develop into full lines.



Quakers Friars

Looking at the rest of the core seven, Lessness and Cornwall have a frontwork based on treble bob hunting on the front four. This means that they extend to maximus but not royal because inserting an extra cycle of treble bob hunting into the frontwork adds 16 rows, taking the length of a lead from 32 to 48. Producing royal versions of Lessness and Cornwall requires some other modification of the frontwork.

One way to adapt Cornwall is to stretch out the half lead dodges. Quakers Friars (Figure 2) has a five-pull dodge in 1-2 and extended places in 3-4. Having five-pull dodges in both positions would be false, but an alternative is to put the dodges in 3-4 and the places in 1-2, which produces the method Cornish.

Another way to elongate Cornwall’s frontwork is to insert a block of wrong hunting. This is the idea of Fermanagh (Figure 3). The transitions between treble bob hunting and wrong hunting introduce point blows. The same idea works on twelve but the method hasn’t been named yet.

If the aim is to have a method with Cornwall backwork that extends smoothly from major to royal and maximus, we can consider Kenninghall (Figure 4), which is a Pickled Egg "also try" method. The frontwork has wrong hunting for the whole period when the treble is above 3-4. It might be less easy than Fermanagh because it lacks the point blows as landmarks.





Turning now to Lessness, a straightforward method with the same backwork is Vermuyden (Figure 5). Using the idea of wrong hunting frontwork we can alternatively start from Ely Surprise Major, which featured in the original Project Pickled Egg discussion and extends to royal (Figure 6). There are other royal methods with the same backwork and varying amounts and details of wrong-place work on the front four, such as Thirston and Shepton Beauchamp.

What about Superlative, the final member of the core seven? It doesn’t have a unique extension to royal, and neither Superlative No.1 nor Superlative No.2 is particularly appealing. If you fancy a surprise royal method with lots of long dodging, Anglia (Figure 7) is worth a look. It appears in several peal compositions of spliced. The long dodges give 765432 on the front in the 4th lead and 567890 on the front in the 5th lead. Alternatively, if what you want is another double method, Middlesex (Figure 8) was once described by E. Bankes James, the composer of Bristol Surprise Major, as "the finest royal method that I know" and has also been used in spliced by a number of composers.

In this first article I have discussed a range of surprise royal methods, most of them developing fairly naturally from the Core Seven surprise major.  In the next article I will look towards the current maximus repertoire and discuss royal methods that can provide a bridge to it.

Part 2: Looking towards Maximus

This is the second in a series of articles about the possibilities for updating the surprise royal repertoire. The first article looked at methods that follow naturally from the core seven surprise major methods and some of the other methods considered by Simon Linford’s "Project Pickled Egg". This article considers methods that lead towards the modern standard eight maximus methods, which are Bristol, Zanussi, Phobos, Ariel, Strathclyde, Avon, Rigel and Orion. I have made videos about some of the methods, which can be found on my YouTube channel.

Several of the standard maximus methods have a structure that separates their work into distinct backwork and frontwork regions, each based on a simple rule, with an interface between them that has to be learnt in detail. This is particularly clear in Bristol, Zanussi, Phobos and Ariel. This kind of structure not only makes the methods easier to learn, it gives them good musical possibilities because groups of bells staying together in the frontwork or backwork can generate lots of runs of consecutive bells, given a suitable composition. We can therefore look at royal methods with a similar character, partly because they are good methods in their own right and partly because they provide stepping stones to maximus.


Sgurr a' Chaorachain

Skipping Bristol because it’s so well known already and should certainly stay in the repertoire, the first method to present is Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain (Figure 9). It’s named after a tongue-twisting Scottish mountain ("skoor a khoorikhan") and is based on the same idea as Zanussi Surprise Maximus. As before, I am showing grids rather than lines, to save space and better illustrate the structure. The backwork consists of hunting to a point in the same position as in Bristol, then reverse hunting to another point, then treble bob hunting until it’s time to do the points towards the end of the lead. The frontwork is like Bristol with the addition of a half-lead dodge, but watch out for the fact that the bells are in reverse coursing order across the half lead. An easier method for practising the Zanussi points is Munrung Delight, which has a right-place frontwork and more treble bob hunting overall.

Bands looking for new methods to ring and name can note that Zanussi points take up the same space as the triple dodges in Cornwall, so Cornwall-based methods can often be adapted to have Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain backwork. Usually it’s necessary to add 2nds place somewhere to avoid repeating rows.

Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain was devised by David Brown and first rung 25 years ago, but a more recent discovery is Remus (Figure 10).  It’s similar to Phobos Surprise Maximus but with an easier right-place frontwork. The backwork has pairs of fishtails at the beginning and end of the lead, linked by treble bob hunting on the back six. The main part of the frontwork is plain hunting on the front six, with a half-lead dodge. Within the Pickled Egg extended family, Jovium and its 8th place lead end variation Bolonium have the backwork of Remus, so this achieves some continuity across all three stages.




By the way, whenever I write about methods I realise how much I love the diagrams. Having these beautiful structures to contemplate and perform is a big part of the attraction of ringing, for me.

There are several other methods with similar separation into frontwork and backwork, which are equally accessible. It’s almost like ringing surprise minor by combining work above and below the treble, except that what I call the frontwork isn’t the whole of the work below the treble – there is always the "interface work" near the beginning and end of the lead, which sometimes varies so as to get the bells in the right order when they move from the backwork into the frontwork.

Iddesleigh (Figure 11) is Bristol above the treble, with 9th place at the half lead and wrong hunting on the front six. Ujay (Figure 12) is Remus backwork and wrong hunting on the front six. Dumfries (Figure 13) has Belfast backwork, starting with a point and then a fishtail, and wrong hunting on the front six. It fits into the style of method that we are discussing better than Lockington Surprise Royal and Belfast Surprise Maximus, which extend Belfast but seem to end up with too much treble bob hunting and an excessively static frontwork.



King's Norton

King’s Norton (Figure 14) starts like London, wrong hunting to a fishtail, and then treble bob hunting to fill in the backwork. The frontwork is wrong hunting on the front six. Ringing Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain frontwork instead gives Cotteridge. Conversely, replacing the frontwork of Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain with wrong hunting gives Walsworth (Figure 15), which has a similar character to Ariel Surprise Maximus, although Ariel and Zanussi do not have exactly the same backwork as each other. The same trick can be applied to Zanussi to give a method that has not yet been named. There are also possibilities for inserting Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain or Remus frontwork into some of the other methods.

Clyde (Figure 16) is worth mentioning because it fills the gap between Glasgow Surprise Major and Strathclyde Surprise Maximus. According to the current definition of method extension, Clyde and Strathclyde are extensions of Glasgow and I think that if rung and named for the first time today they would be called Glasgow. Clyde is a little more difficult than some of the methods I have discussed in this article, but all the tricky pieces of work already occur in Glasgow. The main challenge in ringing it is deciding which part of Glasgow work to do below the treble when leaving the backwork, but this can be worked out largely by thinking about how to become the next place bell.

The methods I have looked at in this article are all accessible to a band that’s comfortable with Bristol, and they are all good practice for the easier methods from the modern Standard Eight maximus. In the next and final article, I will look at some peal compositions and see how their choice of methods can lead towards the more difficult maximus methods, especially Rigel and Orion

Part 3: Inspired by Peals

This is the last in a series of articles about surprise royal methods, in which I have been suggesting ways of updating the standard repertoire. The first article considered methods that follow naturally from the surprise major repertoire, while the second article looked ahead to the standard twelve-bell methods and considered how royal methods can bridge the gap between major and maximus. In this final article I look at published compositions as a source of inspiration, and this also leads us to some much more challenging methods.

David Hull, a prolific and respected composer, has produced a number of peals of spliced royal. We can assume that he has given some thought to the choice of methods, which we can use as a guide towards a worthwhile set of methods to ring individually as well as in spliced. Here is a cyclic nine-part composition in seven methods, perfectly balanced with two leads of each method per part, and David also has other compositions with smaller selections from these methods. 

5040 Spliced Royal (7m)
David G Hull
Eagle Nebula         1648203957
Sgurr a'Chaorachain  1795038264
Bristol          s   1098674523
Pollokshields    s   1089674523
Sgurr a'Chaorachain  1352749608
Eagle Nebula         1426385079
Bristol          -   1235749608
Orion Nebula     -   1523749608
Triton           s   1345267890
Fermanagh        s   1563482079
Pollokshields        1358604927
Orion Nebula         1830596742
Triton           -   1908375264
Fermanagh        -   1789023456
9 part.

720 of each method.
125 c.o.m., a.t.w.

Eagle Nebula

Orion Nebula


It was this composition that originally drew my attention to Fermanagh, which featured in part one of this series, and Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain, which appeared in part two. Among methods of similar difficulty, the peal contains Triton, which we also saw in part one, and Pollokshields (Figure 17). Pollokshields has the same backwork and place bell order as Clyde, but the frontwork is a little easier and noticeably more musical. The name of the method is thematic, as Pollokshields is a district of Glasgow. As usual I am showing grids rather than lines, to emphasise the structure while saving space.

More of a challenge are Orion Nebula (Figure 18) and Eagle Nebula (Figure 19), which were devised by David Hull. Orion Nebula looks very much like a ten-bell version of Orion Surprise Maximus, while Eagle Nebula replaces the frontwork with a block of wrong hunting on the front six. That makes it more like Rigel Surprise Maximus, although unlike Rigel and Orion which are the same above the treble, Eagle Nebula and Orion Nebula have slightly different backworks.

Just as there’s a whole series of Fen methods on twelve, although they are not all related to each other, there are a few other Nebula methods on ten. They are all worth a look. Not only that, there are several nebulae out there in the universe that don’t yet have methods named after them, so there is scope for expanding the family with other difficult methods. For example, the wrong hunting frontwork in Eagle Nebula can be replaced by the frontwork of Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain to give a method which has not yet been named but could be another nebula.

If the Nebula methods are a little daunting, here is a slightly easier peal which replaces them with Remus and Dumfries and reduces the number of calls by using 6th place bobs. The additional substitution of Cotteridge for Triton is just so that the place bell orders make the composition work.

5040 Spliced Surprise Royal (7m)
Simon J Gay
Dumfries             1648203957
Sgurr a'Chaorachain  1795038264
Bristol       -      1908674523
Fermanagh     -      1789056342
Cotteridge           1807694523
Remus                1975830264
Pollokshields        1593728406
Pollokshields        1352947680
Fermanagh     x      1426359078
Cotteridge           1234967580
Remus         x      1645239078
Sgurr a'Chaorachain  1807395264
Dumfries             1972840635
Bristol              1789023456
9 part.
x = 6th place bob.

720 of each method.
116 c.o.m., a.t.w.

To find other compositions including these methods and other interesting ones, it’s worth looking at the work of Mark Davies, Alan Reading and Chris Poole.

You might have noticed by now that most of the methods I have discussed have plain hunting at the lead end. All of the modern standard eight maximus methods (Bristol, Zanussi, Phobos, Ariel, Strathclyde, Avon, Rigel and Orion) have this feature. Why is that? The contrast with the old standard eight, and indeed the core seven surprise major, which have a majority of methods with 2nd place lead ends, is striking. One possible explanation is that ringing 4th place bobs in 10th or 12th place methods gives a greater variety of shapes and structures for courses. Another point is that plain hunting across the lead end, especially in combination with features such as Zanussi points or Phobos fishtails, produces a more fluid line without the interruption of a lead end dodge. Although I’m not much of a chess player, I think there’s an analogy with the transition from king’s pawn openings to queen’s pawn openings. The former are good for beginners, but the latter are considered richer and more flexible and are seen more often in advanced play.


But what about Avon? We haven’t identified a ten-bell method that fills its place in the standard eight in the way that Sgùrr a’ Chaorachain leads to Zanussi, Remus leads to Phobos, Walsworth leads to Ariel, Clyde leads to Strathclyde and the Nebula methods lead to Rigel and Orion. The characteristics of Avon are that it’s a double method with some resemblance to Bristol Major, including the place bell order, with the necessary extra work coming from new spiky features that make it more difficult than Bristol Maximus. Clifton and Redcliffe both have Bristol-like features but they don’t satisfy the difficulty requirement because their work is padded out with double dodges or stretched fishtails and places. A method to consider instead is Shipshape (Figure 20), which was originally proposed by E. Bankes James as an extension of Bristol Major. There’s a lot of Bristol in it, as well as some intricate manouevres including the unusual feature of making 8ths from the back.

In these articles, I have a taken a quick tour through a set of surprise royal methods that are accessible to bands that can ring Bristol, and connect well to the modern major and maximus repertoires. Many other royal methods are available, of course, and I have only scratched the surface of what’s possible. I do find that the replacement of printed collections such as Method 300 with online sources makes it more difficult to browse for interesting methods. The search functions in Composition Library are good though, and allow one to search for methods with particular work above or below the treble.

To assist further exploration, I have set up a collection in Composition Library containing the methods from these articles. Search for "Simon Gay’s Surprise Royal Article".