Bellringing at Ripon Cathedral

The Cathedral has a team of around twenty ringers – The Ripon Cathedral Society of Change Ringers – who practise each Wednesday evening from 7.30 until 9.00 and ring before the principal service on Sunday morning (usually 9.30 – 10.30). The bells are also rung for weddings, other services and civic or national occasions. We welcome visiting teams of ringers who wish to ring the bells, and six times per year a full peal – that is a piece of ringing lasting over three hours – is rung.

For the latest news from our ringers, visit their website (clicking here opens their website in a new tab)
(note: Ripon Cathedral accepts no responsibility for content on external sites)

As well as being part of the Cathedral’s mission, bellringing is also an important part of our national cultural heritage and a fascinating lifelong hobby with an active social life. Anyone interested in visiting the tower or who is interested in learning to ring is very welcome to turn up outside the north transept door at our normal ringing time or to contact the ringers’ secretary via the Ripon Cathedral Bellringers website.


The Bells

Ripon Cathedral has a peal of thirteen bells with the tenor bell weighing twenty three hundredweight (about 1¼ tons) and sounding E flat. All the bells were cast by John Taylor and Co. of Loughborough; the heaviest ten in 1932, the two lightest and the semitone bell in 2007/8. These bells hang in the south-west tower.

On top of the central tower in St Wilfrid’s Steeple there is a further bell which is used to announce daily services. This also came from Loughborough and was cast in 1961.

In June 2013, Ripon Cathedral hosted the final of the National 12 Bell Competition for the Taylor Trophy. This prestigious contest involved teams from Yorkshire, Derbyshire, London, Birmingham, Cambridge and Towcester.

The clock uses these same bells to chime the quarters and sound the hours. At 9.00pm each evening the curfew is rung.

Bells have been associated with Christian worship in England since the Early Middle Ages. Bede tells us that when the Abbess Hilda died at Whitby in 680, Begu, who was thirteen miles away at Hackness heard the death-knell which was rung when any inmate of the monastery died. This implies that at this time there were large bells capable of being heard over a long distance.

St Wilfrid, as a contemporary of Hilda, must have been familiar with bells and his church at Ripon may well have had them. Historical sources from the next six centuries frequently refer to bells and the use of bells in association with monastic life.

It is quite possible that bells have hung in the west towers of Ripon Cathedral since their completion in c1224, and may well have hung in the earlier central tower before that. There are bells from the thirteenth century still in use in churches in this area so we can be certain that the technology and knowledge were available at this time.


The Development of Change Ringers

Before the Reformation bells were used singly or in groups for specific purposes, for example to sound The Angelus. With changes to liturgical practices in the years following the Reformation only a single bell was required to announce services. Thus bells were hanging in churches but not used.

This situation was not lost upon the youth of the time who would use the bells as a form of exercise – the gym of the time. Some of our ancient ringing societies still have Youth as part of their title, bell ringing is still referred to as the exercise and the weight lifters’ dumb bells derive from an apparatus for the silent practice of bell ringing.

As they dared each other to swing bells higher and higher they found that as the bell reached the top of a 360° swing it could be paused momentarily and the time of its ringing could be controlled. With sufficient control over the timing a set of bells could be rung down the scale. It now mattered that the bells should sound as one instrument rather than a number of individual ones. Hence, the recasting of a number of bells to bring them into a proper musical relationship.

But down the scale was not the only possibility – the order of bells could be varied 123, 132, 312, and so on. By 1610 this primitive change ringing was developing and by 1640 the amateur mathematicians of the time were working out ways of ringing all possible permutations without repetition. The culmination of their efforts saw the first three-hour peal rung in Norwich in 1715: that is, all the possible permutations on seven bells without repetition.


The History of the Bells at Ripon Cathedral

The earliest reference to bells at Ripon dates from 1354 when one Laurence Wright was employed to mend the clappers. In 1379 a bell was transported from Ripon to Boroughbridge by sledge and then to York by river. It was recast in York with additional metal and returned to the Cathedral to be hung in the north-west tower where it is believed to have remained unaltered until 1762. This large bell was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

In 1391 the hall of Thorpe Prebend was used for casting a bell – the hearth had to be renewed after this! William Wright hung two bells in 1396 and repaired the defects in those of others.

In 1540 George Heathcote of Chesterfield recast the third bell – one of his bells from this time survives at nearby Nun Monkton.

By the time of the Reformation there were five bells in the south-west tower and the Mary bell in the north-west tower. A bell may also have hung on the central tower – the ring used to secure the rope is still in evidence.

Further recastings of these bells took place in the seventeenth century and in 1663 they were hung in a new frame. Many bells were recast during this time as ‘Change Ringing’ came into vogue.

The requirements of change ringing meant that the five bells at Ripon, of different dates and founders, were inadequate. So in 1762 the Mary bell and the five other bells were sold as part payment for a new peal of eight cast by Lester and Pack of London. They were hung in a new frame by James Harrison of Rasen in Lincolnshire. Part of that frame is preserved on the ringing chamber wall. The tenor bell weighed just short of one ton and sounded E natural. A similar peal from this founder is still in use at Knaresborough Parish Church.

 

However, the second and fifth bells were cracked when scaffolding fell on them during the restoration of the tower roof. They were recast by John Warner and Sons of London and rehung by Thomas Mallaby of Masham.

The 1762 bell frame was beginning to show its age and so in 1890 James Shaw and Co. of Bradford constructed a new frame of wood and cast-iron with provision for two more bells. These were cast in 1891 and a chiming mechanism added to the clock to sound the Cambridge Quarters (the famous sound of Big Ben). Shaws made fantastic hand bells but their tower bells were remarkably poor!

Although hailed by some as a success this peal of ten came in for a good deal of adverse critisism. Huge advances in the harmonic tuning of bells in 1896 showed just how poor Ripon bells were in comparison to other peals.

The clock mechanism also had to be replaced, and the fine Potts of Leeds clock of 1906 is still in use today.

Ripon now had a mixed peal of ten, in a frame which proved inadequate: it was too light in construction and made from old, beetle infested timber. So in 1932 the decision was taken to recast the bells and replace the frame, while at the same time constructing a steel and concrete girdle to brace the tower. This work was paid for by Julia White of Highfield, Ripon.

At last Ripon Cathedral really did have a peal of bells to be proud of. The bells are harmonically tuned so that each bell sounds in octaves and minor thirds and each bell is tuned to be part of a set.

The team of bell ringers had grown in both number and ability so an appeal was launched to augment to twelve bells by the addition of two lighter trebles and also the provision of a semitone bell to enable a light octave to be rung. Taylors were again chosen to cast the bells. Hayward Mills Associates of Nottingham adapted the frame and hung the new bells. The team of ringers continues to flourish and the new twelve have a well deserved reputation.