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).