Marysia Hermaszewska reports on the July 2019 Ducklington outing to Worcester.

A lesson in tolerating your own incompetence

Every year, the bellringers of St Bartholomew’s, Ducklington, organise an outing in order to ring in towers unfamiliar to them. This is always a highly enjoyable date in our calendar. For the past few years we have visited towers around Oxfordshire, organising a loop of five churches with a pub lunch arranged part way through the day so that we have a moment to recoup our energies, talk about where we have been, and anticipate where we are still to go. Bouncy bells, long draughts, Anglo-Saxon fonts and medieval murals are all part of the conversation over lunch, as well as discussion of what we have noticed about our own ringing – you find out a great deal about your own skills when you ring unfamiliar bells!

This year, for the first time, we went distinctly further afield: instead of travelling around the county in a convoy of cars, we set off from a local village station and caught a train on the Cotswold line going north – we were on our way to Worcester Cathedral!  When the trip was first suggested, I got incredibly excited at the prospect of ringing in a cathedral – what a Jolly Jape, I thought, what a Something to recount to my non-bellringing friends, what a Thrill to keep in a pocket, to pull out on a dull day and perk back up again! And even when I found out that not the bells themselves were on offer to us, but the simulators on which Worcester ringers can practice, my effervescence was not dampened. This was a Something New, and I was not going to miss it.

Worcester Cathedral has a regular ringing floor where the ropes are attached to the cathedral bells which, when rung, sound out over the city. Below it, however, there is a teaching floor where ‘bells’ are linked to computers – the simulators.  The ‘bells’ feel real – a real sally to pull with a real-bell-feeling weight at the end of it which can ‘break’ a stay, so you have to move the bell correctly. As a group, we rang these bells up, watching each other to get the round right, as we are used to at home. These bells produce a sound through internal speakers, rather than over the city, so you can hear what you are doing (and the city, mercifully, cannot). Once the bells were up, we stood them, then got connected to our individual simulator.  We faced away from the centre so we could see our screen, we put on earphones so we could hear our own round, and we were off. From then on, each individual was ringing within a perfectly timed round, it was Ringer vs Machine, and it was a real challenge!

How it works: you have to pull your bell a few times and the simulator paces the round at your speed. On the screen, there are six ropes which light up one after another as each bell sounds; you hear the sound through your earphones.  You have to pull your sally to ring your bell in the right place. There is a little tab at the bottom which lights up – green if you timed your bell perfectly, red one way if it was too early, red the other way if too late, yellow one way or the other if you were a bit off but not too bad. When you have had enough you can stand your bell and get your score – how many were good – 100/120 – or whatever it was (my tab was red so often, I chose not to find out; I suspect it was something closer to 7/120 rather than 100). The machine was precise, and unforgiving. The lack of obliging companions to speed up or slow down around me showed up just how irregular my ringing is.

As well as rounds, the simulator can be used to practice method ringing. Although I am a relative novice, having started ringing only a few years ago, I am confident ringing the treble for Bob Doubles, so thought I would try this, just to see how it felt. Well, it was a magnificent disaster from the second pull! Having almost no visual cues made me realise just how much I rely on sight when ringing, and how underdeveloped my listening skills are. There was no one to look at! The computer display of a rope lighting up (the new programmes show a person pulling the rope) was not enough. I knew perfectly well what I should be doing, and when; however, without being able to watch others, I simply couldn’t do it, I was all over the place, ringing a completely original method with energy and enthusiasm – and a solidly red score on my tab. Appalling!   I needed easier – to ‘bong at the back’ – tenor for Bob Doubles, surely I could do this a bit better.  Not really needing to know what others are ringing so long as I bring up the rear with a regular bong has lead me to rely far more on listening when ringing the tenor. I gave it a try. Although more successful here than on the treble, I must confess that I wasn’t very good. I use rope sight more than I realise! I am not a good listener and I have rubbish timing!

By now, we had been ringing for some 45 minutes. I was exhausted. The concentration needed to listen, really listen, listen intently and respond appropriately when you are used to getting information by other means is like being immersed in a new language which you have to learn and use on the spot. It is an intense experience.  So when it was suggested we bring our bells down and switch off our computers, I was ready. We were all exhausted and, in a pleasingly democratic manner, we were all on the Useless spectrum – even our tower captain, who has been ringing bells for longer than I have been alive. We all, we realised, need to listen better.

After that, to soothe us back to contentment, we were given a tour – of the ringing chamber, and of the bells, and then the climb to the top to see the view over Worcester. It is a lovingly maintained tower (the bell chamber is so clean!) and credit must go to the tower team and their captain, Mark, who made us welcome, who helped us out and to whom the team at Ducklington give their thanks.

Inspired by the challenge, we have now purchased a simulator (which we call the Stimulator).  Although some of us did not enjoy the experience, missing the contact and camaraderie of ringing in a group, I, for one, want to use it to practice so that, at the very least when I ring the tenor, my bonging is not sliding about in a space accommodatingly created by the generosity and greater experience of my companions, but beats at the back in a regular and reliable manner.

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