The state of handbell ringing

Great as has been the progress of the Art of Ringing during the last decade, it cannot be contradicted that one particular feature of its exercise, and that not by any means the least important, has, if not altogether ignored, to a certain extent not received that amount of consideration to which its merits entitle it.  We allude to double-handed ringing upon handbells.

This mouthful of grand oratory was the lead editorial in an early edition of the Bell News and Ringers Record (Vol 1 number 15, April 1882, p 113).   We could say exactly the same today (although with different, less grandiloquent, language).  On one level wonderful, groundbreaking things are being rung in hand, on another change ringing in handbells remains the shy, secretive handmaiden to an already hidden art.

Is handbell ringing in a better or more parlous state than in those late Victorian times?  The Bell News records few association meetings that didn’t close with handbell ringing in the pub, reporting a prevalence of Treble Bob, Stedman and Grandsire.  Surprise methods were very rare.  Nowadays,  we can see handbell performances of Surprise methods on a regular basis, by many different bands of ringers.  However, handbell ringing itself has disappeared from being a regular part of learning to ring (how many modern ringing books speak of handbells as a teaching tool except in passing?), or of being a sociable feature of association meetings.  Many ‘tower’ sets of handbells are no longer in a ringable state or have disappeared.  And when was the last time you rang handbells in the pub?

Purely anecdotally, I think that there is an impression that handbell ringing is an obscure and very different exercise of The Exercise, fit only for those very mathematically minded people who are too clever for the rest of us ordinary ringers.  Well, it helps, sure, when doesn’t it?  But handbell ringing isn’t radically different from tower bell ringing – it is only looking at the same methods in a different way, and your experience of each enhances the skills of the other.

The entire editorial had me saying ‘yes’ and ‘indeed’ and ‘quite so’ all the way through.  Harvey Reeves, the editor, points out that many ringers never bother to see a handbell from one practice to the next, yet one is not a complete ringer without practicing two in hand.   Knowing a method in handbells gives a ringer an edge over his compatriots.  This is true.  Ringing two-in-hand gets you up close and personal with the method structure in a way few other things can.

But Mr Reeves pushes even further, asserting that a ringer who has gained true competency ringing two-in-hand (by which he defines as being able to ring a method to any touch from any pair, ‘like clockwork’), is at the top of the whole game.    Argue that one if you will – there is a comments form at the bottom of this post.

For the record, I am a very ordinary ringer, and I can ring handbells just fine.  Does it give me an edge in the tower?  Absolutely.  Am I at the top of my game?  No (but that is what practicing is for).


I remember that when I first tried to ring Cambridge S6 in hand, and that was only from the trebles, I gained an awful lot of appreciation of what inside bells were doing when the treble is doing "x"... something I just hadnt even thought about trying to work out or watch before. Similarly as I moved to ring inside in hand to Surprise major. I find it a pity that many ringers who have no probelm with method structure, or conducting, or putting people right from the other end of the change, still consider 2-in-hand too complicated. Probably from lack of chance to practice!

Very often, even a good tower

Very often, even a good tower bell ringer will take a while to become good at handbells. (Of course, there are always some people who pick up handbell ringing very quickly and easily). I sometimes wonder whether expert tower bell ringers are reluctant to try handbells because it would mean going back to the role of a learner.

We had the Scottish

We had the Scottish Association AGM and striking competition on Saturday, and I'm pleased to report that while the competition was going on there was handbell ringing ranging from Plain Hunt on 6 to Kent Royal, involving at least 10 different people.

Unquestionably for most of us learning to ring methods in hand is much harder than learning to ring methods on a single bell in the tower. I think most people can be readily taught to course a pair to plain hunt or even plain bob, but surprise methods in hand take a lot of effort to master, unless of course you happen to be one of the gifted few who can split their brains and genuinely ring two lines independently. For the rest of us it is only achieved with major effort, tedious learning, lots of practice (to train the brain) and quite a lot of support/encouragement from other ringers... That said a major difference between now and 1882, is the existence of computer based simulators which make it possible to learn and practice methods even when you do not have a band to practice with. Simulators also allow the repetitious practice needed to train the brain to do a complex task without testing the patience of the better ringers in your band. While I have a way to go to be a “competent” ringer by Mr Reeves definition, I doubt without ‘Abel’ that I would have got beyond ringing Plain Bob or Kent. What Surprise ringing I have achieved is largely down to lots of practice on the simulator and the kindness of much better ringers in my area (a good conductor being key). Many a train journey has been lightened by practicing with ‘Mobel’ on my iPhone (with headphones I might add), usually without my fellow travellers paying any attention. I suspect this may be one of the tools that will allow younger ringers to get further with ringing surprise methods, especially as they are more likely to embrace the use of technology for the purpose. Simulators are particularly relevant to handbell ringing where finding a band to practice with can be a major challenge, and bridging the gap between the casual handbell ringers and the experienced peal ringers is very difficult. I would recommend Abel/Mobel to anyone looking to learn methods in hand but with the slight warning that it is also a bit difficult to get started on until you acquire the particular version of ropesight it offers (flicking between up and down bell images). So start with something very simple such as Plain Hunt and go very slowly until you get it and wind up to proper peal speed later! I am really interested to come across this web site because one of the problems with handbell ringing is that generally it is rather secretive and often is just ‘by invitation’ and does not really seem to have a forum for finding other ringers other than by personal contact or word of mouth. It is refreshing to see someone making an effort to publicise what they are doing, and I would of course be interested in any advice that can be offered on how to master it.

The State of Handbell ringing then/now

Considering the doom and gloom on the back of this week's RW, what IS the current state of handbell ringing? Thriving or in decline?

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