For services rendered in teaching you to
ring to the end of the Blue Zone


Your fellow bellringers

Is this the true cost of learning to ring? Would you pay? Have you in fact already paid?

Those of you who have stuck with this series will remember that I started by asking a number of questions about ringing that troubled me, and judging by the number of people who have talked to me about this since, questions that trouble others as well. I introduced a high-level classification system that helped to understand different groups of ringers and in doing so helped me to present some answers to some of my questions.

The classification system – the ‘Blue, Red and Black Zones’ – has generated much debate. The principle hasn’t been challenged, and the existence of the discontinuities in the learning curve has received much support. There have been alternative theories for what causes the difficulty in jumping from the Blue to Red Zone, and plenty of people proposing that the Black Zone is far bigger than I suggested (proving that they either missed the point or more likely I didn’t define it accurately enough).

Two of the key questions I have so far left unanswered:

“1. Why did someone feel it necessary to question publicly the activities of those good enough to ring in the National 12-bell Striking Competition? Were they saying that the “real” contributors to the exercise are the 99% of ringers who ring on eight bells or less for Sunday service?

2. Why do some less-experienced ringers believe that those who have reached the “dizzy heights” of 12-bell ringing (and above), or who are in the leading peal-ringers list, do not put anything back into ringing?”

The snipe at participants in the 12-Bell Competition was misdirected. It is true that a large number of participants ring for Sunday Service at towers with more than eight bells and hence would not be ringing Bob Doubles the next day (as the original correspondent questioned), but the bells of the country’s larger churches and Cathedrals need to be rung just as much as those of villages and towns. Furthermore, they probably call more people to worship, and in many instances the standard of ringing expected is higher just as the standard expected from a Cathedral choir is higher. If you are good enough to ring at for example York Minster or St Paul’s Cathedral don’t you have a duty to do so? Should the Exercise not match the broad spectrum of abilities with the broad spectrum of requirements and expectations? Ringing at a six-bell tower on Sunday morning is no more worthy and dutiful than ringing on twelve at a Cathedral. Both have to be done.

There is an imperfection in the system in that the towers with strong bands attract more ringers, and so there is uneven distribution of ringers and ropes on Sundays. Although ideally a surplus of ringers at one tower on a Sunday should share its resources, this requires a degree of organisation we are not generally capable of. However that is no reason for criticising those who ring at ‘prestigious’ towers rather than their local tower on a Sunday, and I would suggest that the number of ringers who do not ring for Sunday Service at all is very small.

Perhaps any criticism of ringers not putting anything back is better aimed at practice attendance. We almost all see Sunday Service ringing as our duty, but how many of us see practice night ringing in a similar vein? Is the criticism of those who do not ring at practices justified or should they be free to do whatever they want, e.g. ring peals, instead? Are there many people who don’t do any ‘local’ practice ringing? There are certainly far more than don’t ring anywhere on Sundays.

Although we might tell the clergy that practices exist in order to make Sunday ringing better, they do also exist of course to teach more people to ring on the nursery slopes of the Blue Zone and to enable more experienced ringers to progress on the rich and varied slopes of the

Red. Ringing teaching is not structured and formal, and we rely on the goodwill of those who are more experienced than us to progress to our full capability. All good experienced ringers have been through this and hence all are the expected to participate in the teaching process if they can. Very few ringers make good teachers, but the teaching of ringers needs a large supporting cast who will ring things below their own capabilities in order to help others – everyone has a part to play.

It goes without saying that none of this teaching is paid. But what would be the cost if it did have to be paid for? If you take as an example a band of Red Zone ringers with one Blue Zone learner, and that learner has half an hour of rounds on six plus a supervisor at a weekly practice for three months, then half an hour of rounds and/or plain hunt on eight three times per week for a year, then half an hour of plain methods on eight similarly for another year, over 1,000 man-hours are needed from others. At an average rate of pay of say £20 an hour that is a £20,000 tuition cost! And some people give up half way through! This seems a disproportionate cost for gaining elementary proficiency. No wonder the Exercise relies on ringers to teach each other for free.

Not only do we not have to pay for tuition, you cannot pay to get better at ringing. Golfers can pay for as many lessons with the local pro as they can afford. Few golfers have the innate ability to become as good as professionals, but they can pay to become far better than they otherwise might be. Similarly in choral singing practice will make you sing better and get you more experience, but you can get higher up the learning curve and more quickly by paying a professional teacher. In the absence of paid training we have to rely on free training, and free training comes from volunteers going to practices.

And so we expect or at least hope that ringers of all abilities will put something back by going to practices and being involved, if not at grass roots level, then quite a long way down the stem. We hope for repayment of the ‘1,000 hours’ invested in them by other ringers. The peal ringing fraternity is the most criticised, and it cannot be denied that there are some ringers who ring a lot of peals who do not do any local or traditional practice night ringing at all. However there is only so much ringing anyone can do in his or her spare time and if someone enjoys ringing peals, then ringing at additional practices will be the activity that gets dropped. They may also already have repaid their ‘1,000 hours’. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that much peal ringing is for the purpose of learning or progression. The more experienced a ringer becomes the more any further progression has to come from peal ringing because there isn’t the opportunity at local practices. Peal ringing is a very focused form of practice – it is rarely pure indulgence.

I suspect that many learners who go along to their local or district practice assume that all the other ringers are there for their own enjoyment. I am sure this is not always the case. There are lots of reasons for going to practices but I bet that loyalty and tradition are higher up the list than pure enjoyment. Maybe when we turn up at our practice we don’t consciously think we are going in order to help others as our teachers helped us but that is what we are doing.

Most experienced ringers do put a lot back into ringing directly through teaching, training, ringing with local bands, Central Council membership, bell maintenance, etc. The ‘1,000 hours’ invested is repaid and in some cases it is repaid in spades. However the non peal-ringing aspects of their ringing lives is not reported and scarcely gets a mention outside The Ringing World’s obituary columns.


When after seeing the first article the Editor asked me “I’d like to know where you’re going with this”, my lack of answer wasn’t because I had accidentally deleted his email. I really didn’t know for sure. Well I can now safely say that I have run out of material and hence this is the concluding part. I hope this series has roused debate and will stimulate further correspondence. Judging by the number of people who have talked to me about the articles it certainly seams to have got people thinking. A lot of what I have written is of course my opinion, although it is not without thought and research. I am happy to argue any of the points I have made, and stand to be corrected if necessary!

Finally I owe thanks as always to all those who have helped, and an apology to those who have listened to me droning on about this subject for the last two months.


BB BellBoard
Central Council of Church Bell Ringers