Learning to ring handbells during lockdown

Three ladies of varied experience joined together during lockdown to form this lively handbell group. There’s the relatively new ringer who has never touched a handbell and two others who are experienced tower bellringers and ART teachers. Together they embarked on the Learning the Ropes (LtR) Handbell Scheme. Let’s see how they’re getting on...

The ART teacher who can ring handbells (trebles preferred)

I have always had a rather timid approach to handbell ringing. In my head I simply cannot get to grips with it. I rely on others to help me achieve and I am always under the impression it’s the first time I’ve ever rung this or tried that. Now lockdown has given me the chance to really put some effort into understanding what I am doing and help others while having some fun along the way. I have been ringing trebles for over 30 years. I really do enjoy ringing handbells but, at the same time, find it quite frustrating.

Following the creation of Ringing Room I managed to wangle my way into a group of experts who were keen to use it to ring quarter peals and improve on what they could already ring. My first attempts were horrendous but using Abel to practise there were some signs of improvement. Unfortunately, my previous strategy of filling in gaps and waiting to be helped does not work in Ringing Room, and I have had to learn exactly what I am doing.

My unstoppable, enthusiastic learner had also discovered Ringing Room and had made it widely known she was keen on trying handbells. A buddy had started practices for her learners and we also had regular practices set up alongside weekly talks for the Broadland Bellringing Centre (BBC) band. My diary was filling up when, somehow, we started regular Ringing Room handbell sessions as well. I’d also managed to fit in some Ringing Room sessions during lunch hours but now I really needed to up my game. Some of the others wanted to ring 1­2, so that meant I would have to ring other pairs, so we decided to enrol on the LtR Handbells scheme.

At time of writing, lockdown is being eased and there is now the possibility of sitting in the garden, having afternoon tea with cake, whilst trying to cope with wild hair in a strong wind. I am also invited to other people’s gardens for handbells and picnics. I still have the expert sessions each weekday morning plus the online BBC Handbell School. So, all is well in my ringing world.

The problem is, the unstoppable, enthusiastic learner is putting in some serious practice. She’s learning fast and trying anything and everything, with the odd amusing comment. For example, after she pummelled me for instructions on how to ring Kent on 1­2 and wrote in a blog about trebling to Bristol Maximus, she looked vague over a cup of tea and said, “A dodge? What’s a dodge?”

An ART teacher new to ringing methods on handbells

About five years ago I started teaching people to ring. The gentler ART approach seemed a great improvement on the way that I had been taught. Despite hyperventilating during my early lessons through fear of hanging someone, plenty of practice has imbued me with a feeling of quiet competence as far as teaching handling is concerned.

Come lockdown I felt lost. I made a half­hearted attempt at continuing my Surprise Major learning on Abel, but button pushing was soon pushed aside with a complete loss of motivation, and anxiety about being able to obtain food supplies for my aged mother. Then the wonderful Ringing Room enabled our local Ringing Remembers recruits to continue extending their learning ─ their enthusiasm and progress was inspirational.

The Mobel app became available for Android, and CCCBR released a couple of beginners’ handbell books free to download (bit.ly/3hKYQFo). I decided to make an attempt at lockdown­learning despite my prior prejudice that the tinkly­ness of handbells set my teeth on edge. Handbell ringing was sufficiently different to be something of itself rather than the pale ghost of what I was missing.

My god­daughter managed to knock out her first successful handbell quarter peal about six weeks into lockdown, declaring it to be “boring”. I, on the other hand, took weeks just to be able to Plain Hunt. I clattered away on my tablet, working through William Butler’s 14 stage guide to ringing Plain Bob Minor, telling myself that it would be a good reminder of what it is like for struggling learners, and that it is possible to improve, even if only slowly, if you just keep at it.

Very gradually, I made progress, until I eventually plucked up courage to join the Broadland Bellringing Centre’s Ringing Room Handbell School, thus enabling one of the novice tower bell ringers to exalt in her push­button handbell superiority. I found that any slip by me or anyone else would instantly lead to my complete collapse, and a great deal of repetition was needed to build a stable enough framework to support a few wobbles. I now understand that some of the people I have taught on tower bells are probably not suffering a loss of confidence or lack of preparation when they can’t get right after a mistake – they just need to stop, regroup and start again because they suffer from a similar ‘framework collapse’.

Having progressed to occasionally being able to stagger through a plain course of Plain Bob Minor, William Butler told me at stage 13 that, ‘If you have worked your way steadily through each stage in this book then bobs and singles should present you with no problem’. Ha! Similarly, Mr Accomplished Handbell Ringer indicated this to be trivial, ‘There’s only the three patterns!’ Yes, but it’s the transitions that are difficult, and how do you cope with calls as well? And nothing is trivial when your brain is already overloaded.

I’m afraid to say it was only at this point that it occurred to me to sign up to the LtR Handbells Scheme. And I’m so glad I did, because half an hour’s reading on SmART Ringer made it clear that I needed to adjust my thinking and it gave me a way forward.

The easing of lockdown permitted a non­virtual gathering in a garden and we attempted to ring some actual handbells. At long last I felt that I was myself again – with that feeling of group endeavour that I so missed from tower bell ringing. Okay, the physicality is not the same, but it was joyous to be having a laugh and striving for improvement together and in the flesh!.

We are continuing to practise both virtually and on physical handbells. I doubt that I shall ever reach the dizzy heights of Level 5 of LtRH, but I have high hopes for Level 2!

A Ringing Remembers recruit who has never rung handbells and is still often alarmed by tower bells

When I sat down, sharpened my pencil and began to write about ringing during lockdown, I quickly realised that although I am a bellringer without an accessible tower, I am not a bellringer without bells. I have virtual bells to ring and I have ART teachers available to help me keep on learning. Certainly traditional change ringing in towers has stopped for the foreseeable future, but necessity is the mother of invention, and many committed ringers are seeking out new opportunities to remain engaged with the bellringing world and to further hone their skills. Like our forebears faced with cold dark towers during winter months, I am learning to ring handbells and to practise things that I might have been working on with tower bells.

In my naivety I assumed that most tower ringers also rang handbells, perhaps not as well as the big ones but that they could at least knock out a plain course of something in an emergency. I had not appreciated what a niche activity it is. When I asked around, very few ringers were able to help but my 'Big Bell' teacher was. She knew someone else who could also support me, so we entered the Ringing Room together and started to learn. The first task was to learn to Plain Hunt from any pair of bells. I know how to Plain Hunt. As a Ringing Remembers recruit I mostly Plain Hunt. But never with two bells. With handbells, after the first nervous janglings, it was almost straight in to Plain Bob Minor, despite the fact that I have only ever once rung anything on an inside bell in the tower, and that certainly was not a minor method.

For the first month we were restricted to virtual ringing. Each week at least three of us met up online and I was guided through what I needed to know to ring handbells successfully. In between I practised on Abel, perfecting the patterns and trying desperately to link them together, transferring the little that I already knew about ringing methods to this new skill. The patterns were not a problem, but the transitions between patterns at each lead end were very difficult for me. “You are now dodging,” I was told, as if I was a frequent dodger and knew what that must entail. “Make places at the bob”. Um – how exactly? But we worked on it, worried at it, and repeated ourselves until we got things straight.

Feeling bold I ventured into the Ringing Room Take Hold lounge and sought out other nascent handbell ringers. Someone had put up a post seeking like­minded people who wanted to learn to ring in hand. I contacted them and asked to join their Handbell Clinic, fully expecting that at least a few would be inexperienced ringers such as myself. I was quickly disabused of this notion. They were all ‘proper ringers’ – anyone who conducts Zoom meetings in front of a wheel attached to their wall is not a recent learner. But we get along fine – meeting for an hour each week – and since they have no idea of just what a neophyte I am, they push me to do things that no sane teacher would consider. Since there is no preconception as to what I may be capable of, they assume that I understand all sorts of things that I have no clue about and expect me to tag along with their progress, rather than stumble along in the slow lane.

Although, I think they were somewhat shocked the other day when it was suggested that I learn the first two leads of Kent, and I ignorantly enquired how many leads of Kent are there This required an explanation about how methods work ─ something that to them was so basic, but news to me.

Then, with the easing of lockdown in June, two people arrived at my door with a set of handbells. For the first time ever, I was able to ring a physical bell in a group. There was some initial banging and clashing as I was instructed on how to make the bells sound correctly and my handling is still amateurish ('staccato' is how my teacher describes it) but so thorough was my virtual grounding that within a few minutes we were able to stagger through a course of Plain Bob Minor. Admittedly with a very determined conductor waving his bells at me every time I wandered from the path.

Since that first foray into ‘real ringing’, we have formed a ladies only band: ‘The Clanging Belles’. We meet once or twice a week for the purpose of improving our skills. Through storms and other distractions we have been working together for three weeks and are now reasonably confident on a plain course of Plain Bob Minor, as well as venturing into the world of bobs. We have experimented with various combinations and found our favoured positions, and I have lucked out on the trebles ─ no need to watch for the sneaky treble if it is in your own right hand ─ which releases a little brain space for other things.

I love ringing handbells. Even if towers do not reopen for some time, I am quite content. I find this new skill intensely stimulating, as convivial as its bigger brother, and very democratic. We decide between us which bells we want to try, who wants to make the calls, and when to stop for tea. Through working out what exactly is going on in a method in order to memorise it, I am learning a lot about blue lines. How transferrable all this knowledge is to the tower remains to be seen.


Nikki Thomas, Catherine Sturgess and Mary Jones