About the 12-Bell

Are you new to the world of bell ringing and wondering what all this is about? We asked Michael O’Hagan, secretary of the contest organising committee, to explain things a bit…


How did the contest start and what’s it like now?

Saturday back in May 1975 saw five twelve bell teams from across the country get together at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol to compete for bell ringing glory. The team from Leicester emerged victorious and volunteered to host another twelve bell contest the following year, the first for the Taylor Trophy. Between then and now, the contest has evolved into one of the biggest events in the bell ringing calendar. This year sees the 44th contest, featuring nineteen teams from across the length and breadth of the country. The original post-ringing buffet tea has become an all-day beer tent, judges’ pencil and paper is supplemented with computer analysis technology, and busy finals now welcome as many as 700 people. They don’t all compete of course – many are simply there to enjoy a great day out, listening to top-notch ringing and catching up with good friends.


What’s so special about twelve bell ringing?

Though a few towers contain rings of up to sixteen bells, twelve is the largest number that’s commonly found across the country. Ringing tends to get trickier on higher numbers – there are more bells to fit into the rhythm, so the bells are rung more closely together than on lower numbers. In ringing on twelve, the human ear can easily detect errors of 50 milliseconds, sometimes even less. As each bell is rung by a different ringer, it’s critical that everyone works together to build and maintain a cohesive rhythm. With so many bells to get in the right place, even small hesitancies and blemishes can ripple through the ringing and cause even bigger disturbances later on (ringing’s own Butterfly Effect!). This is a challenge of all ringing, but it’s particularly noticeable on twelve. There are other contests for ringing on different numbers though, such as the Tewkesbury Shield and Worthington Trophy competitions for ringing on ten bells. There’s also the excellent Ringing World National Youth Contest where teams compete on eight bells.


How does the contest work?

The contest is open to all centres of twelve-bell ringing – to date only teams from the UK have competed, though there’s reason to hope we may one day be joined by teams from further afield, as there are rings of twelve overseas too. These days far more teams enter than any judge could listen to in one day, so competing teams are divided across three eliminators, held in March, to compete for places in the Final in June. Competition is always challenging, though it’s often possible for the draw to result in an ‘eliminator of death’ that is particularly fierce! If (like Cambridge this year) a team who normally competes is hosting the final, they’re offered a bye, meaning that there can be up to ten teams competing for the Trophy on the day. In the end, only one team can take it home!


What do the teams have to do?

All teams will be ringing the same test piece on the day. This defines the specific order that the bells must ring in, and is memorised by the ringers in the form of a ‘blue line’ that looks like this. As well as concentrating on this, each ringer will be working hard to listen to the rhythm and place their bell exactly where it should be each time it strikes. The test piece takes about 12 minutes and each bell will strike 288 times during that time – that gives 3,456 dings in total, and every one counts!


How is the contest judged?

Normally a team of three or four people make up the judging team. They will be listening intently to every team’s ringing, and following a printed copy of the test piece to highlight where blemishes and inaccuracies occur. Critically, the judges won’t know which team is ringing! In days gone by, judges would listen from broom cupboards or strategically-parked cars, but these days a live sound feed is broadcast to them from a microphone positioned in the belfry, which provides a much clearer sound. As well as listening for any gaps or clashes, the judges will also be interested in the general compass of the ringing and overall rhythm. A key development in recent years is the use of computer technology known as the Strikeometer. This analyses the ringing against a set of mathematical models and provides the judges with both high-level and granular statistics on the consistency and accuracy of each team’s ringing that they can use to aid their deliberations. The Strikeometer is particularly helpful when a large number of teams are competing, as it helps to ensure a consistent approach to marking the ringing throughout the day.


Is it really that serious?!

A bit! Ringers are a competitive bunch, and everyone who rings in the contest is determined to produce the best ringing the can on the day. Many will identify competing in ‘the 12-bell’ as one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of their life! Other teams and supporters will be listening from the churchyard and across the internet, forming their own opinions, so there’s a bit of pressure on the judges too – particularly if there are any close calls to make. But all this just adds to the excitement!


How do I find out more?

Have a look round the website, or come along on the day! Look out for Cambridge-based helpers who will be happy to answer any questions. Or we’ve got a list of links in the Related Websites section.

If you can’t make it to Cambridge, don’t fear! You’ll be able to listen to all of the competition ringing, plus interviews with teams, supporters and contest organisers, in an uninterrupted live broadcast of the day by Matthew Tosh on YouTube. It's interactive coverage with listeners sending in messages from all over the world. So if you are listening, you'll be able to get in touch and share your thoughts about the ringing or send a team your good luck wishes. Full details will be provided during the broadcast. There will also be announcements on the contest webpage and social media throughout the day – like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@National12Bell).