Handbell Ringing (Ringing World Letter by John Spice)


(Ringing World Letter by John Spice, 24th May 1946)

Dear Sir,

I have read with interest Mr. Woodhouse's article and the recent editorial on handbell ringing, and should like to make a few remarks on the subject, as one who has consistently followed and taught the system which Mr. Woodhouse advocates. This system is, needless to say, applicable only to treble-dominated methods; for others (practically speaking, Stedman) each bell must be thought of more or less separately, although even here a large measure of coordination is possible, and indeed indispensable if the brain is not to be taxed unduly. For simplicity, I shall confine my observations to even-bell methods, and shall consider plain methods in the first instance.

It should be realised that the rules given are for methods contain­ ing only places made "right" (i.e., hand and back). For such methods the system may be epitomised: "Hunt your bells and watch the treble, knowing where the places come with reference to the treble; an even place (i.e., one in an even position) always causes the bells above it to dodge and an odd place the bells below".

A practical point to watch is that with odd places, which cause dodging below the treble, the dodge comes before the treble has had its second blow in the relevant position, unlike even places, where the dodge comes above the treble and so after the treble has had its second blow. For this reason odd plaoes give one less time to think and sometimes cause difficulty.

For methods with back and hand places these rules do not work without modification, and if any progress is to be made with such methods, the distinction between forward and backward hunting must be firmly grasped, and the construction of the method viewed from this angle. Much has been said in these columns in the past about the term "backward hunting"; I am not here concerned with the niceties of definition, but would simply recommend those handbell ringers who wish to satisfy themselves of the difference between the two kinds of hunting, to ring first an ordinary (forward) plain hunting course on six bells—i.e., starting with

Backstroke 123456
Hand 214365
Back 241635

and then a backward hunting course

Backstroke 123456
Hand 132546
Back 315264

My technique for dealing with Treble Bob and Surprise methods is slightly different from Mr. Woodhouse’s, the places (if any) at the cross-sections being distinguished from those within the sections. Consider first the work within the sections. Treble Bob and Surprise methods being based on Treble Bob hunting courses, the bells will dodge within each section, except where the pattern of places says otherwise. Here a practical hint may be interpolated. Suppose (for instance) that lead and Fourths are made in a given section; this is most easily remembered and put into practice as  "Plain hunting on the front four bells".

At the cross-sections, the bells plain hunt in the case of a Treble Bob method, or dodge and make places with Surprise methods. So to ring such a method the procedure is as follows:

(a) See where your bells are at the first row of the section (a backstroke)

(b) Dodge, within the section, except where otherwise demanded by the pattern of the places.

(c) Note the position in which the bells fall at the fourth row (handstroke).

(d) Hunt or dodge your bells according to the arrangement of the places at the cross-section, and go back to (a) for the next section.

This sounds more complicated than Mr. Woodhouse’s technique of simply learning the places (and, of course, it is pointless to argue whether the place causes the dodge or the dodge the place), but it has the following advantages:

(a) It is easier to follow the treble through the long treble-lead if the work is considered as divided up into sections, and this serves to emphasise that the norm in Treble Bob and Surprise methods is dodging rather than plain hunting.

(b) There is less strain on the memory, the cross-sectional places generally conforming to one of a few types.

(c) It is far less complicated when the method has places made wrong.

Thus, a brief glance at a course of London or Bristol will show that certain of the places overlap each other, making the application of Mr. Woodhouse’s system virtually impossible. But when ringing by the sections there is little greater difficulty; such methods are, in fact, much easier to ring than plain methods with back and hand places, because the treble moves more slowly from one position to another, and there is more time to think.

It is well to remember that a dodge is equivalent to one step of backward hunting. Thus the following arrangement of places (i.e., backward hunting on the front four bells in two consecutive sections with 5ths at the cross-section) is effectively backward hunting on the front four bells for eight blows.


Lead and fourths

Lead and fourths
Backstroke fifths
Lead and fourths

Lead and fourths

[In this and the following illustrations the reader is advised to draw a line along the path of the treble and to mark the position of the places, external and internal, preferably by coloured inks. Mr. Spice’s meaning will then be clear. Editor.]

The four standard Surprise Major methods are now learnt and rung as follows:

Plain hunt on back six

Lead and seconds
Plain hunt on back four

Plain hunt on front four

Plain hunt on front six


Dodging elsewhere. Cross sections like Double Norwich. Seconds when treble leads. Sevenths when treble lies.


Plain hunt on middle four

Plain hunt on back four

Plain hunt on front four

Plain hunt on middle four


Dodging elsewhere. Cross sections like Double Norwich. Seconds when treble leads. Sevenths when treble lies.


Forward hunt on back four

Backward hunt on back four

Backward hunt on front four

Forward hunt on front four


Dodging elsewhere. Cross sections like Double Norwich. No places when treble leads and lies.


Backward hunt on back six

Lead and seconds

Backward hunt on front four

Backward hunt on front six


Dodging elsewhere. Cross sections like Double Norwich, but not sixths when treble is in 4-5. Seconds when treble leads. Fifths when treble lies.

A few general remarks about my personal experience of this system of handbell ringing may be apposite. Handbell ringing was started seriously at Oxford in the autumn of 1940, and the experience gained during the ensuing year led us to adopt the system, outlined above, for teaching purposes. I would emphasise that we evolved the system for ourselves, it being gradually brought home to us that this was the logical way of setting about handbell ringing.

Beginners at Oxford (who rarely have any previous knowledge of change ringing on tower bells) are allowed to ring a plain-hunting course or so with one bell, in order to familiarise themselves with the ideas of plain hunting, and are then thoroughly drilled in the three plain-hunting positions on six bells (this being the ABC of double handed ringing, and equivalent to plain-hunting on one bell in the tower).

It is then explained that Bob Minor simply consists of plain hunting, with 2nds place made each time the treble leads. The beginner is now made to ring a course of Bob Minor on 1-2. Each time the place is made, the 2nd dodges and the pair falls into a fresh hunting position (but, of course, one which has already been practised). It is not difficult to progress from Minor to Major, and the promising recruit will probably soon be able to manage inside pairs with little trouble (here, of course, he has to learn to watch the position of the treble, as he is no longer ringing it himself). From Plain Bob to Reverse and Double Bob is but a small step and soon, as Mr. Woodhouse suggests, methods like Oxford Bob Minor can be tackled, and then Double Court and Double Norwich.

For the transition to Surprise methods, it has been found best to start with simple Treble Bob Minor methods such as College Exercise and British Scholars' Pleasure (where there are no places at the cross-sections to worry about). It is then easy to go on to Cambridge and the like. Of course, it should not be imagined that everyone takes to hand­bell ringing like a duck to water. The sine qua non is a sense of rhythm—a feeling for the "beat"; granted this, most people will pick up the principles of the art in time, although individual aptitude naturally varies greatly. One girl rang her first peal (1-2 to Bob Major) in just over five weeks from her first practice; most recruits take upwards of three months.

We have always had to deal with large numbers of beginners at a time (generally between thirty and forty at the start of each academic year), and under such conditions it is very definitely a case of the survival of the fittest; attention has to be concentrated on the pro­mising subjects, and it is seldom possible to give sufficient individual help in cases where such help might just sway the balance between acquiring the "knack" and not acquiring it. Nevertheless, we have turned out at least a dozen people in the last six years, who can successfully use this technique of handbell ringing in its entirety, as well as many more who, while not quite reaching the same level of proficiency, were all the same very useful handbell ringers. Only one or two of these could previously ring changes on tower bells, but this was an advantage if anything, as they could start with a clean sheet, and had to rid themselves of no preconceived notions. Most tower bell ringers find it very difficult to stop thinking of handbell ringing in terms of "two blue lines". 

You say in your leading article that most good handbell ringers ring their bells from the ordinary work of the method, helped out by a knowledge of the places. For ourselves, I would say that we work from the other end; we ring primarily by the places, but as time goes on we employ our knowledge of the work of the method as an additional guide (often subconsciously). Moreover, with practice, it is not necessary to work out the movements of the bells blow by blow; certain combinations of places and positions of the bells con­stantly recur, and are instinctively recognised and translated into practice.

You, Mr. Editor, hint that this kind of "handbell ringing made easy" may not be an unmixed blessing, and I myself have heard one well-known ringer refer to it somewhat contemptuously as "mere tapping". This is, of course, a matter of opinion; I would submit that handbell ringing is to be considered on its own merits as an art distinct from tower bell ringing, and as such requiring its own distinctive technique. The advantages when progressing from plain courses to touches, and when splicing methods together, need hardly be emphasised.

Probably the man who rings by the places and he who rings by the "blue line" will be on more or less equal terms when each has rung a peal in a given method; both will by then know the work so well that they will ring two bells to the method as automatically as they ring one in the tower. But the man who rings by the places will achieve this result with far less effort and trouble than the other. He works by general rules, while the other has to treat each method as an individual case. A band whose members ring by the places will be able to go right ahead and ring a touch or a peal of a method after each person has studied half a lead of the method for a few minutes. The alternative is laboriously to commit to memory the work of two bells, in every possible position in which these two bells can fall (for a Major method, this is equivalent to learning the work of 34, 5-6 and 7-8 in the plain course).

A further criticism is that undue reliance is placed on the treble; if the treble goes wrong, all is lost. That is so, but then as the treble is being watched all the time by the ringer of every other pair, it is very seldom allowed to go wrong.

A possible weakness of the technique is that when a tnp cccurs, a man may have more difficulty in righting himself than when he is ringing by the blue line. For this reason, the conductor will always correct mistakes by telling the delinquent the position of his bells and that of the treble, rather than the work he should be doing. But if, as stated above, the blue line is not entirely forgotten, one may fall back on this when in trouble, and thus use the best of both methods. Complete knowledge of the coursing-order is, as always, quite in­dispensable in correcting trips, and in simple methods is all that is required.

To sum up, I prefer to put my faith mainly in ringing by the places. But as in most other things, one loses by an entirely one­ sided development, and the most complete and useful expression of the art must be a synthesis of all its aspects.