A good reason to move from the trebles

 I decided that I would attempt to ring something in hand “by the book” – the book being  Change –Ringing on  Handbells  Vol. 1: Basic techniques by Tina Stoecklin and Simon Gay. It was only published in 2020, but I am guessing that it is already a classic within a rather niche market.  It takes the novice handbell ringer from a position of absolute ignorance about handbells  (how do I hold the things? entrance level) through to ringing Treble Bob Major.  It is all that you will need to become a reasonably competent handbell ringer, other than access to a set of handbells  – decent ones if possible  because, just liking learning to ring tower bells on a challenging ring makes the whole undertaking that much harder, on handbells  you need the bell to go “ding” reliably because everyone will be counting it.  You will also require a group of friends who are prepared to put in a deal of hard work and not get too cross with each other. It is not an easy undertaking  and I suspect that many who started on this path back in 2020 when towers were shut, no longer bother because although the rewards are huge, the  work required is daunting. There is a follow-up book, only just published , that continues the journey and, once I have grasped Chapter 13  of Vol.1,  I will be on to it.

 Normally,  I bumble about learning a list of telephone numbers and then gradually the mist clears and I begin to see some sort of pattern that allows me to  ring by a rule. For example, instead of attempting to remember what happens at every lead end, I see the place notation and know whether to dodge or hunt  or make a bob. Different methods have their own unique patterns and once you know that there is a 34 right from the get-go in Kent (how often have I  mistakenly crossed my hands when ringing the 3-4 position?) and a 34 a heart- beat later in Oxford, then the required moves slide into place. If you are fortunate to be ringing the trebles, then some patterns are “allowed” and some disallowed.  Since you can’t ring in the same place with both bells, sometimes it is clear which way to move because the treble pattern is fixed. If that bell is taking up a place and the 2 has to decide which way to jump , by process of elimination, the decision is already made. Gradually, after hundreds of repetitions, which combinations of bells are permitted in any given lead percolate through the brain.  In this way, ringing 2 bells can be easier than ringing only one for me, because the treble is always giving useful information.  Whereas, in the tower, although more experienced ringers can use the treble in this way, I cannot. It is all that I can do to hold on to the rope and my dignity.

But rather than rely on my hit and miss fumblings, I decided to follow the advice of experts. If they wanted to learn to ring Double Norwich, what would they do? What are the signposts along the way? How will the structure support the learning? Double Norwich is the last chapter in the book and we have got to the last chapter.  For once The Clanging Belles are tackling things in the correct order, despite a premature dive into Book 2 earlier this year.

I drew the trebles because the others know something about Double Norwich already, whereas I am a blank sheet. I know that it requires 8 bells, that there are 7 working bells and that the treble plain hunts.  I also know from playing in the ringing room during lockdown, that if the 2 or 6 bell makes the bob three times  ( a 16 sort of bob) then it comes round nicely after 12 leads and that it is only necessary for the ringer of the 2 or the 6 bell to learn 2 leads that appear  both forwards and backwards. 2 sets of 16 numbers is not too challenging, so telephone number learning is possible. But for once, I am not going to use this approach – I am learning by the book, so what do I need to do to really understand Double Norwich so that I can ring it without relying so heavily on memory?

I read Chapter 13 over and over.  I read it alongside a blue line. I split the line into place bells and noted which bells mirrored the pattern of other bells.  I read it alongside the grid. I looked at the place notation and reconstructed the line from a handful of pairs of numbers. I considered what “boxes” might be, but at the end of the day, the only piece of advice that made complete sense was to ring DNCB by the method that works best for you.  Music to my ears. The “trash can approach”  – try them all and see what sticks is admirable advice.  Pick your favoured method, start there and then each time you ring the method try to draw on more features.  I would compare it to learning to read – most kids learn using phonics, read like a robot for a bit and then gradually incorporate other cues – grammar, comprehension, structure etc to become fluent and versatile readers who can tackle any text.

From the trebles, what  works for me is to learn the line using place notation and place bells, write it out relative to the treble and practise it until committed to memory. “Boxes around the treble” eluded me.  What did it mean? And then  yesterday, some Belles met via zoom to see how far we had got during solitary practice. I can manage a plain course fairly reliably if everyone is in the correct place. If things get fuzzy I am less robust because my learning relies on following a line and blending it with some plain hunting in the right hand. To find my way back when things are flaky is very hard. But then the conductor asked whether I thought I could ring the tenors because then it makes us more flexible  as a group when we seek a 4th honorary Belle for a quarter peal. I agreed to try and suddenly, things that I had read in Chapter 13 that made little sense from the trebles, slid into focus.

 “What are these boxes” I enquired? I was advised to “Hunt if you are within the box and dodge if you are outside, depending on the place notation”. Ie if the PN is 36, then dodge if you are  “outside” at 12 or 78, hunt if you are “inside” at 45 or make a place at 3 or 6 position. From the trebles this is not particularly clear or helpful, but from the tenors it is a “penny dropping moment”. One hand may hunt whilst one hand dodges and Glory Be, I can see why. I may not yet be able to execute each change automatically, but I can imagine a day when I will be.

That and that alone is a good reason to force yourself away from the trebles. It may feel uncomfortable; you may be less reliable; you will probably make loads of mistakes, but you will improve your understanding .  Furthermore,  people will not be able to make digs about the trebles being “a doddle” and imply that you are somehow an inferior cog within the machine.

We treble ringers are sensitive types and we like to think that, without our steadfastness, the whole band will collapse. A doddle! The very cheek of it.


  1. I’ve just re-read Chapter 13 and I think it includes everything that Tina and I would say about the structure of the method and how to learn it. But I have some extra comments about how to practise ringing it, which are along the lines of Chapter 4 of Volume 2 and include my recent experience of practising new methods.

    I don’t ring primarily by place notation or by the grid, so for me, everything starts with the blue line. Later this is expanded to what Philip Earis has called “blue line plus”, meaning that my knowledge of the line is supplemented by knowledge of the structure; in Double Norwich this means the boxes around the treble.

    Page 195 of Volume 1 describes the blue line in words, in a condensed form that omits sections of plain hunting and focuses on the work that is not plain hunting. This is what I learn first, by a combination of verbal memorising and visualising the diagram. I learn each place bell separately, and test my recall of each place bell, in various orders: numerical order (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), the place bell order of the method (8, 2, 7, 4, 5, 6, 3), the place bell order of a different method (e.g. Cambridge, 2, 6, 7, 3, 4, 8, 5). You can also do random orders by rolling a die (in this case an 8-sided die would be ideal). When I have perfect and immediate recall of every place bell, regardless of which order I am tested in, I am ready to ring the method in the tower.

    For handbell ringing, usually more learning or practice is required. I would start with the easiest pair, which is 7-8, and try to ring a plain course on Abel/Mabel. Ringing by two blue lines, this means trying to recall the work of two place bells simultaneously and fit them together, which is much harder than recalling individual place bells. Usually at this stage I will discover some pieces of work that are tricky to ring, or that I don’t remember quite as well as I thought. If I focus on a tricky piece of work that one bell is doing, sometimes I forget the work of the other bell. If I don’t get through a whole course, I either start again from the beginning or start from the beginning of the lead in which I failed. Sometimes I need to look at a diagram of both lines together and study how they interact during a tricky section. Gradually it becomes clear how everything fits together and eventually I can ring a plain course without mistakes.

    If I’m practising with the aim of ringing a quarter on 7-8, I might stop there. Otherwise, it’s on to the next easiest pair, which in my view is usually 3-4. The same process again but this time it doesn’t take as long because by now I really do know the line thoroughly and have learnt a lot about how different pieces of work fit together. Finally, the same for 5-6.

    Over the years I have developed the ability to practise a method entirely in my mind, by counting through the places (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 etc) and visualising my bells swinging up and down in time with the count. This is a little more difficult than practising with Abel/Mabel, because I have to do the counting myself whereas with the simulator the counting is externalised to the sound of the bells. But it’s useful because I can fit in a few minutes of practice at any time or place. What I sometimes do, which I don’t think is possible with Abel/Mabel, is systematically practise all the combinations of place bells: 7-8, 6-8, 5-8, 4-8, 3-8 2-8, 6-7, 5-7 and so on. This is good for really reinforcing one place bell at a time and how it fits in with all the other place bells.

    Your comment about one bell helping the other when ringing a pair is absolutely right. You are also right that in many methods the trebles are more difficult than the other pairs.

    PS. For Double Norwich, don’t listen to anyone muttering things like “near, full, far, first, treble bob, last”. It’s not the best way to ring it in the tower, and even worse in hand.


  2. That is certainly a lot to think about – you should consider writing a book (or 2) on the subject! “Blue-line-plus” is exactly what I mean about learning to read by “phonics plus” – master the basics and then refine and improve as your knowledge and understanding expand.
    It is reassuring that, although I often feel that like I am reinventing the wheel, really I am not. I am actually tackling new methods much like other people, although with no previous learning about a method to transfer, so from a much lower starting point. I too attempt to learn each place bell and then test my knowledge by muddling up the order of the leads (which is the reason why when tower ringers who can ring Cambridge struggle with Primrose, I think “how strange…” – it is the same thing in a different order). I also attempt to ring any old pair of place bells eg 3-8, even though I am never likely to have to. As you say, concentrating on one can often reveal the fact that one does not know the other quite as well as one thought. I also do most of my practice in my head – walking the dog/falling asleep etc.
    As for people muttering near/far etc, I don’t know what they mean so screen them out, much to the conductor’s annoyance. The only thing that has ever been useful is someone in Stedman saying – “the 2 bell is meant to be doing a Friday. not what ever you are doing….”
    Thank you for the encouragement. 7-8 is almost grasped and ready to come out to play.


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