Church Bell Ringing: Performing with Covid-19

Church Bell Ringing: Adapting to Covid-19 in Several Acts

The Prologue

If asked to give examples of the Performing Arts, most people would probably quickly list Choirs, Orchestras and Theatre Groups. Some of the younger folk would probably add Pop Groups and Solo Singers, and some of the more seasoned folk might add Dance, Opera and even Circuses. But, in my opinion, few would think of saying Church Bell Ringing, yet to all intents and purposes, Church Bell Ringing is a Performing Art.

Perhaps Church Bell Ringing wouldn’t be high in people’s thoughts as a Performing Art as it doesn’t have a visual aspect and you don’t have to go to a particular venue to listen to it. Church Bell Ringing is essentially a part of the English (and wider) community landscape; most people hear it as they go about their normal activities and accept it as part of the life of the communities in which they live. Some hearing bells ringing on a Saturday might head for the church in the hope of catching sight of a bride doing what brides do, but even then they wouldn’t think about the ringing as other than an indication something is happening in the church.

Nonetheless, Church Bell Ringing is a Performing Art: Church Bell Ringers train new members, practise (rehearse) together, perform (ring) together for Church Services including weddings, and they ring to celebrate and commemorate local, national and wider events. Ringers also perform in competitions, and even ring just for the joy and achievement of ringing together as a team!

Act 1: Dark Times

Enter Covid-19, stage right, left and centre…

Sadly, like other groups involved in the Performing Arts, Church Bell Ringing has been negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst churches were closed, bell ringing was suspended. Now that churches are reopening, those involved in Church Bell Ringing are cautiously looking at ways in which bell ringing can be resumed safely, but there are challenges…

If you saw the Last Night of the Proms on the television recently, you will have noticed that the choir was much smaller than normal and each chorister was well away from their nearest colleague. Each member of the orchestra had their own “desk” rather than sharing one with another musician, and everyone had their own copy of the music (well those who hadn’t learned the words and tune did!). In these and other ways, choirs and orchestras have adapted their “stage” so they can perform safely in the “Current Normal”, albeit generally without their normal audience.

The “stage” for Church Bell Ringers in the “Ringing Chamber” is rather more fixed. Ropes from each of the bells above hang in what is known as the “Rope Circle” and adjacent ropes can be as little as two or three feet apart. At St Mary’s, Nantwich, in the “pre-pandemic” rope circle, the nearest two ropes were just 0.8m apart (marvel at my ability to switch effortlessly between imperial and metric units!) and the most two adjacent ropes were apart was 1.2m. Here is a photo of a “band” of Nantwich ringers ringing for a wedding in those halcyon days of September 2019; the two nearest ringers are ringing two of the bells with ropes just 0.8m apart (the third and fourth, numbering from the right).

Nantwich Tower Rope Circle

Act 2: The Resumption of Church Bell Ringing

In August 2020, the Church of England Recovery Group (in consultation with the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers) issued guidance on resuming Church Bell Ringing safely during the pandemic. This included a rule that bells may only be rung by ringers from different households (support bubbles) if their ropes are at least 2m apart. Other rules constrained the duration and frequency of ringing sessions and prohibited more than one ringer ringing a given bell during the same ringing session, but it is the distancing rule that has the greatest effect on the aural “performance” of Church Bell Ringing.

At Nantwich, we measured the distances between all the ropes and found that implementing the 2m distance rule would mean we could practically ring no more than three of our eight bells, and even then only in a few widely spaced combinations (in the photo above, even the gap between the third and fifth is only 1.8m). To ring any more we would need a single family of ringers with four or more members (which we don’t have).

Those who have heard us ringing for a Sunday service recently may have noticed that, as well as ringing fewer bells than our normal eight, the performance doesn’t sound quite right – this is because the subsets of the bells which we’ve been able to ring leave gaps in the musical scale which we wouldn’t normally do.

[There are murmurings in the audience about how many bells they have heard rung recently…]

Having said we could only ring three, it is true that we’ve been ringing up to five since we’ve resumed ringing. But have we been ignoring the rules?

Once we realised we could only ring a few bells, which wouldn’t be very satisfying for performers or listeners, we considered whether we could adapt our “stage” to enable us to ring more safely. Clearly an obvious answer would be to move the ropes further apart, but how?

As you will see in the photo above, we have a very big ringing chamber (a fairly regular 8m octagonal floor plan) so there is plenty of space around the rope circle. We also have a high ceiling (of around 7m) and an unusual central arch partly dividing the ringing chamber into two. The central arch provided a quick win. The ropes for two of our bells (the third and the sixth) fall very close to the arch and there are guides screwed to the arch to prevent the ropes from wearing on the stonework. It seemed worth experimenting with moving these guides so the ropes were pulled some way out of the normal circle.

The following photo shows the resultant deviation of around 2 feet to the normal drop for the ropes of the third (on the right) and sixth (on the left). Whilst this didn’t make these ropes far enough apart from those of their adjacent bells, the movement of the third rope put it more than 2m from that of the fifth (was 1.8m), and the movement of the sixth rope put it 2m from the fourth (was 1.8m).

Nantwich Tower – Changes to the Third and Sixth Guides

Annoyingly, whilst these changes now allowed us to ring the four bells 1-3-5-7 with 2m distancing, the second’s rope was still too close to the fourth’s rope (1.7m) to allow us to ring 2-4-6-8, but we could at least add 4-6-8 to our repertoire of threes. Actually, with two of our ringers being in the same household, we could ring 2-4-6-8 with them ringing the second and fourth, but no more.

[Murmurings: So how are the ringers ringing five then? You are breaking the rules, aren’t you?]

The scaffolding in the photo gives a clue as to what we did next. The rectangular holes which can be seen in the far wall and on the side of the arch are where rope guides used to be located (there are corresponding holes on the reverse of the arch and on the wall behind the camera). We wondered if we could reinstate some rope guides, in this case not just to lower the effective ceiling and perhaps improve the circle and rope handling, but to move some of the ropes further away from others. In this case we picked on the second’s rope (just on the other side of the arch from the third’s rope).

Act 3: Breaking the Circle

A trio of ringers made a quick trip to the local wood yard and acquired a 4.8m piece of 4" x 3" timber (I’m really good at mixing units now!). Two of our ringers can be seen carrying it to the tower and being mindful of the gap – we like to think of it as practising “Extreme Social Distancing”!

Nantwich Tower – Extreme Social Distancing

This was then installed above the second and, using an old pulley retired previously from the bell frame, we moved the second’s rope a couple of feet away from the third and fourth. Not only did we increase the distance between the second and fourth’s ropes to 2.6m, we managed to achieve a 2m gap between the ropes of the second and third!

Nantwich Tower – Changes to the Second Guide

The new rope guide over the second can be seen in the photo above. The photo also shows some of the crosses on the floor which we marked with a plumb line to measure the inter-rope distances. The following spreadsheet shows these distances after the movement of the ropes of the second, third and sixth:

Bell 1 2(a) 3(a) 4 5 6(a) 7 8
1 + 1.10 2.50 2.50 2.90 3.20 2.00 1.20
2(a) 1.10 + 2.00 2.60 3.30 4.00 2.95 2.20
3(a) 2.50 2.00 + 1.50 2.50 3.85 3.45 3.05
4 2.50 2.60 1.50 + 1.00 2.40 2.40 2.40
5 2.90 3.30 2.50 1.00 + 1.55 2.00 2.35
6(a) 3.20 4.00 3.85 2.40 1.55 + 1.40 2.20
7 2.00 2.95 3.45 2.40 2.00 1.40 + 0.80
8 1.20 2.20 3.05 2.40 2.35 2.20 0.80 +
Key + This bell Less than 1.0m 1.00 to 1.49m
1.50 to 1.79m 1.80 to 1.99m 2.00m or more

We could now ring 2-4-6-8 without needing any ringers sharing a support bubble! With the 2m gap between the ropes of the second and third, we could also ring the five bells 2-3-5-7-8 with a family pair of ringers on 7-8, and we could ring 2-3-4-6-8 with them on 3-4. So, we haven’t been breaking the 2m distancing rule! Interestingly, we would still need a set of four or more ringers in the same support bubble to ring more than five bells (unless you can find a combination that I’ve missed!).

We couldn’t think of anything else we could practically do to the rope circle under the 2m distancing rule. However, speculating that it might be relaxed at some future stage to say 6 feet (1.8m) we had moved the ropes of the third and sixth a bit more than necessary for the 2m rule (see above table). We could see that in doing so we could install guides to move the fourth’s rope a similar distance to be 1.8m from the third rope’s new position and ditto for the rope of the fifth from that of the sixth. We might then be able to ring more combinations of bells safely.

After checking for loose bears, we exited the stage…


Act 4: Two becomes One Plus?

When it emerged recently that the ringing distancing rule might be relaxed to 1m+ in England, as we are also wearing face coverings whilst ringing, we realised that this would allow us to ring all our bells as long as we had a family pair on 7-8 (the only pair of adjacent bells now with ropes less than 1m apart) and we wouldn’t have to interfere with the ropes of the fourth and fifth. We could even consider moving the guides on the third and sixth back in a bit…

Hmm, could we do anything to remove the reliance on a family pair having to ring the two back bells? Could the seventh’s rope be moved slightly? It wouldn’t take much…

Another trip to the wood yard was arranged and another beam was installed in the ringing chamber. Here in the following photograph you can see a beam and new guide over the seventh (in the foreground).

Nantwich Tower – Changes to the Seventh Guide

This additional guide has moved the seventh’s rope a little closer to that of the sixth (now 1.25m) but, more significantly, it has moved it 1.1m from the eighth’s rope. Yippee! We could now ring all our bells without relying on any ringers sharing a support bubble if the ringing distancing rule were to be relaxed to 1m+. However, we thought in this case it would be prudent to move to just ringing six bells initially as this would only need one more ringer to be present (rather than three). [The newer “Rule of Six” now limits us to ringing no more than six in any case.]

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted that the photo shows we’ve also added another guide over the second. This is where the rope would normally hang and we could use this if the 1m+ rule comes into operation as the rope would still be far enough from those nearby. Both this new guide and a similar readjustment to the guide over the seventh could remain in-situ after the pandemic to give a little more guidance to the ropes on these bells.

To date the distancing rule hasn’t changed and may not do so whilst the incidence of infection increases, or may not reduce by so much. Maybe changes to the fourth and fifth ropes could still happen…

Programme Notes

Reintroducing Church Bell Ringing safely during the Covid-19 crisis is a “work in progress”: the distancing rule may not be relaxed for some time and if it is it might come down more gradually; and other changes may be necessary as the pandemic progresses. There may be more Acts to write…

It is important to note in this production we are not trying to measure our safety to the millimetre and “play to the limits of the rules” or look to exploit loopholes. We are lucky at Nantwich that our environment has several other aspects that help keep us safe: we have a large airy ringing chamber which is pretty much our own space; we don’t for example share a small, poorly ventilated and cramped area at the bottom of the tower with other church people as is the case for some other ringers.

It is also important to note that our activities above have been carried out with the informed consent of Mark, our rector, and we were careful to ensure that none of the changes we made would damage the fabric of the church or require a faculty.

At all times we had the safety of our ringers uppermost in our minds and we checked each change did not make ringing the bells unsafe. In addition to adhering to the distancing rule at Nantwich, we also considered many other aspects of keeping our ringers safe in accordance with the guidance being jointly developed by the Church of England Recovery Group and the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. We conducted a Risk Assessment and had it approved by the PCC; should the distancing rule change we will review and revise our risk assessment to double check our activities are still safe. Indeed, we shall be reviewing our Risk Assessment based on our experience over the past month or so anyway to make sure it is still appropriate and we will take into account other towers’ experiences and ongoing developments in the guidance and general Covid-19 situation.

Here are some of the other actions we are taking:

  • We are only ringing for a maximum of 15 minutes for services. We are leaving a gap of at least a day between ringing for services if the same band rings the same bells on both occasions, and at least 3 days if different bands are ringing.
    NB: This means we cannot ring for two services in a day. So on Sundays we are ringing for either the 10:45am Holy Communion or the 6pm Evensong instead of for both, and if we ring for a wedding we will only ring after the service instead of before and after. So far, we’ve only rung for one wedding and we’ve not yet been faced with having to tell a happy couple we can’t ring for their service as we’re already ringing for another service that day…
  • Only the ringers performing are present, they stick to ringing one bell for the 15 minute performance, and they are wearing face coverings at all times in the tower and maintaining 2m+ social distancing when not ringing.
  • We have all four of our doors in the Ringing Chamber open during the time we’re in the tower to increase the ventilation (one of the photos above shows a door and the reflection of another) – we’re not looking forward to ringing with all the doors open in winter as whichever way the wind blows it blows across the circle!
  • We have installed hand sanitiser dispensers at the bottom of the stairs and in the Ringing Chamber (which we shall continue to use after the pandemic is over).
  • The Tower Captain is doing his bit and refraining from shouting instructions at the ringers!

A big sadness is that we cannot teach new ringers at the moment, nor help some of our existing learners progress to the stage when they can ring without assistance. Indeed, we can’t even practise together at all.

We are grateful for the kind comments on the church’s Facebook page and we look forward to a time when we can welcome visitors to the tower again.

Stefan Zientek
Tower Captain, St Mary’s, Nantwich
4 October 2020


26/09/2020 Initial publication.
04/10/2020 Links to photos changed to reduce loading time; minor corrections (e.g. changed social bubbles to support bubbles, added reference to “Rule of Six”); verbiage reduction.
22/02/2021 Minor typographical changes.