Technology at Weston Hills Ringing Centre goes from strength to strength

Geoff Horritt – a ringer for over 50 years – received two ART awards in February, including Excellence in Technology in Teaching. We asked him to tell us about the exciting projects taking place at the state-of-the-art centre for bell ringing novices at Weston Hills in Hertfordshire.

My interest in dumb bells [writes Geoff] was initially kindled not long after the millennium by a photograph of one of the first Ringing Roadshows in The Ringing World, showing a number of weird dumb bell contraptions – bicycle wheels with ropes for example! I’m a retired defence and space engineer, so practical solutions with an engineering angle have always interested me.

In 2002 I became a Herts Central Council rep and a year later I joined the Education Committee, followed shortly afterwards by Pip Penney. It wasn’t long before she was launching the ART Teaching Scheme, working collaboratively with the Central Council. Soon after I retired, in 2007, the Central Council had a Ringing Centres initiative, but I failed to find a suitable local venue. However, I was pleased when St Peter, St Albans, applied for and was successful in obtaining funding from the Central Council. From then on, I used the centre at St Albans once a year for a District training morning until the centre closed a few years later.

Retired Physics teacher John McCutcheon (from Hitchin in Hertfordshire) built an optical sensor for me and we tried it out at my home tower in the village of Sandon. It worked and I used it occasionally, but at that time I was still working full-time and playing cricket, so I didn’t have much time to spare.John built another sensor for the church at Weston (population around 1,000) in North Herts. We had some trouble with its alignment, realised what the problem was, but we simply did not find the time to make the adjustments.

At the first of two Ringing Roadshows at the Newbury Racecourse, the Education Committee stand displayed the prototype Saxilby simulator and support frame, built by David Horrocks. My task was to show punters how it worked and to let them have a go. At the end of the show the simulator was packed into my car, so I took it to Sandon and assembled it at the back of the church at the time of the annual flower festival. A villager, Debbie Williamson, said that she would like to learn to ring and I arranged to meet her on a Saturday morning and try out with the bell. Within two hours she was ringing a tower bell and on the following Tuesday rang rounds with the band! That’s when I decided that dumb bells were the way forward. I have never quite repeated that experience in Sandon, and soon after David Horrocks reclaimed his hardware.

A year or so passed, and then in 2012 Weston’s PCC generously asked the ringers if we needed any funding. Together with Tower Captain Richard Clements we suggested that they might buy a Saxilby for us. The complete Saxilby with a stand was too expensive at that time, so we went for just the Saxilby dumb bell which we mounted in the tower at Weston. We sourced a second-hand computer and screen and there it was – our first simulator!We trialled it over the next few years with training handling and method ringing. I also trialled focused ringing mornings – two learners and six experienced ringers – for a few hours of dedicated practice and all concerned enjoyed their morning. At this time we applied for an ART Award and were delighted to be Highly Commended, but I thought we could do more.

By then I was travelling around the UK extensively and was always interested in looking at simulators and talking to whoever would listen about training hardware and how it could be used. In 2018 I saw the opportunity to obtain some funding to enable Weston to become a Training Centre in the District. Sensors have been added to each of the six bells so we can now teach up to six learners simultaneously with the bells’ clappers tied. It has opened up so many possibilities for the learners, who can practise at any time of the day, on a virtual system which can replicate the experience of ringing in a band of up to 12 ringers. It has enabled us to teach youngsters safely, and in response to the Ringing Remembers recruitment initiative, we used the equipment to train a complete new band for the nearby Hertfordshire village of Cottered, where the five bells of St John the Baptist have not rung regularly this century. In addition to those individuals named above, I am particularly grateful to Holy Trinity Weston’s Rector Reverend Fiona Wheatley and the Parochial Church Councillors for their support. Also, to County Councillor Steve Jarvis and The Whiting Society for providing seed-corn funding. In parallel the tower at Hitchin offered me their Saxilby dumb bell and a local ringer Bob Langley has designed and built a frame. This is now available to the District and has just been on loan to the Essex Course over Easter.

I invariably finish second in competitions, so I was very surprised to win an award at the last ART Conference and then – like buses – two came along at the same time! The monetary awards will be used to provide extra facilities at the Weston Hills Ringing Centre. We want to install cameras in the belfry, so that those in the ringing chamber can observe the movement of the bells in the chamber above them. And we also hope to install a camera in the ringing chamber itself, so that a TV screen can be placed in the nave to enable those in the church to see the bell ringing as it takes place.

Currently, I am experimenting with the use of headphones for the hard-of-hearing, by running the simulator in parallel with open ringing. The simulator is set to produce a sharp clear sound to enable the user to pick out their bell. The problem with normal hearing aids is that they tend to cut out the background sound which includes the sound of the bell!

Finally, the “clamp the clapper” challenge. What I would like to have is an electro-mechanical device in the clapper bearing which enables the clappers to be clamped using a switch in the ringing room. This should not be difficult to engineer and would greatly enhance the use of simulators for teaching and practice nights. Would the Central Council or ART or Association training budgets like to put forward some money for the design and development of such a system? Some ringers are already thinking of potential systems but we need a concerted effort which also involves the bell hanger.


Jenny Thomson & Geoff Horritt