Ring of bells

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A "Ring of bells" (or "peal of bells") is a set of bells hung in the full-circle English style, which was invented in the 17th century to give control over the speed of striking of each bell. This feature soon led to the development of change ringing. The vast majority of "rings" are in church towers in the Anglican church in England. A ring can be three to sixteen bells, though six and eight bell towers are the most common. They are tuned to the notes of a diatonic scale.


Mechanism of a bell hung for English full-circle ringing. The bell swings through more than a full circle in alternate directions.
The bells of St Bees Priory shown in the "down" position, in which they are normally left between ringing sessions.
The bells of St Bees Priory shown in the "up" position. When being rung they swing through a full circle from mouth upwards round to mouth upwards, and then back again.

Each time it sounds, a bell's motion begins in the mouth-upwards position. As the ringer pulls the rope the bell swings down and then back up again on the other side. During the swing, the clapper inside the bell will have struck the soundbow, making the bell sound or "strike". Each pull reverses the direction of the bell's motion; as the bell swings back and forth, the strokes are called "handstroke" and "backstroke" by turns. After the handstroke a portion of the bell-rope is wrapped around almost the entirety of the wheel and the ringer's arms are above his or her head holding the rope's tail end; after the backstroke most of the rope is again free and the ringer is comfortably gripping the rope some way up, usually along a soft woolen thickening called a sally.

The bells are usually arranged in an upper room called a bell loft in such a way that their ropes fall into the room below, called the ringing chamber, in a circle. Clockwise circles are most common, but anticlockwise ones are far from unheard-of. Unlike the norm among most musicians, the bells are numbered downwards, progressing from the treble (the lightest and highest-sounding bell), to the "2", the "3", and so forth down to the heaviest and deepest-sounding bell, the tenor.

The distinctive sound[edit]

The sound made by a bell rung full-circle has two unique subtle features.

Because the clapper rests against the bell immediately after striking it, the peak strike intensity dies away quickly as the clapper dissipates the vibration energy of the bell. This enables rapid successive strikes of multiple bells, such as in change ringing, without excessive overlap and consequent blurring of successive strikes. In addition, the movement of the bell imparts a doppler effect to the sound, as the strike occurs whilst the bell is still moving as it approaches top dead centre.

Both these effects give full circle ringing of bells in an accurate sequence a distinctive sound which cannot be simulated by chimed bells which are stationary and take more time for each strike to decay.

Bell decoration[edit]

Change ringing bells are often cast with inscriptions on their sides. These are often as simple as the name of the foundry which cast the bell, or that of its donor. Sometimes, however, bells are named, or bear short mottos. At Amersham (in Buckinghamshire) the tenor proclaims "Unto the Church, I do You call, Death to the grave will summon all." Perhaps because they are tolled at funerals, tenors often bear this sort of serious motto; those of trebles are often more light-hearted. The one at Penn, Buckinghamshire, for example, reads "I as trebell doe begin"; that at Northenden (Lancashire), "Here goes, my brave boys."

Dove's Guide[edit]

A key resource is Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers, which aims to list all towers worldwide with bells hung for full-circle ringing. As of April 2007, that guide listed 5750 ringable rings of bells in England, 181 in Wales, 35 in Ireland, 20 in Scotland, 10 in the Channel Islands, 2 in the Isle of Man and a further 123 towers worldwide with bells hung for full circle ringing.[1] Australia has 45 rings of bells.[2] Others are located in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Spain.[1]

Bell ringing was (and still is) very common in England, and there are many pubs around the country called "The Ring of Bells".

Ringing church bells occurs in three basic ways: normal (peal) ringing, chiming, or tolling. Normal ringing refers to the ringing of a bell or bells at a rate of about one ring per second or more, often in pairs reflecting the traditional "ding-dong" sound of a bell which is rotated back and forth, ringing once in each direction. "Chiming" a bell refers to a single ring, used to mark the naming of a person when they are baptized, confirmed, or at other times. Tolling the bell is ringing the bell once every four to eight seconds to announce a person's death.


Bell weights[edit]

A bell's weight is usually measured in the traditional units of the long Hundredweight (cwt), quarters and pounds. A bell weighing "21-1-2" is then 21cwt, 1qtr 2 lb, or 1080.5 kg.

The weight of a ring of bells is usually characterised by the weight of the tenor bell. A "33cwt ring of ten" refers to a ring of ten bells where the tenor weighs approximately 33cwt.

Tenor bell[edit]

The largest, heaviest and lowest-sounding bell in a ring of bells is known as the tenor bell.

This will not necessarily be the largest bell at a particular church, notably when a striking clock is also present. While in many towers the tenor of the ring doubles to chime the hours, sometimes a separate bell is used, typically larger than the change-ringing bells; see Great Tom.

Treble bell[edit]

The highest-sounding bell in a ring is known as the treble bell. This is not necessarily the lightest bell in a tower, as the tuning of small bells depends at least as much on the details of the shape as on the weight of the bell.


  1. ^ a b Dove, Ron; Baldwin, Sid (29 April 2007). "Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers". Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Central Council Publications. Retrieved 30 April 2007. 
  2. ^ "Heritage: All Saints' Bells"

Sources and external links[edit]