Transcript for ‘Ringing in the Ears: Navigating Sound in the Bell Tower’

Transcribed by Emily Watts

Alison: [00:00:00] I’m very anxious to make sure that the sound levels didn’t exceed 80 decibels because that is getting to the limit beyond where frequent exposure can cause long term damage to hearing. I think 85 is about the limit. So I used a phone app called Decibel to record what the levels were. And I found that the bells were at about 75 decibels.

[00:00:23] [Bells ringing]

Cathy: [00:00:29] Hello. This is the fun with Bells podcast and my name is Cathy Booth. In this episode, we’re talking about two related things. First of all, I’m interviewing Alison Collins and Chris Shore, who wear hearing aids, talking about their ringing. And then I’m talking to Roger Booth about how you can change the volume levels in the ringing chamber, so that it’s suitable for everyone to hear properly. My first guest is Alison Collins. Alison, how would you explain your bell ringing to other people?

Alison: [00:00:58] I started ringing 40 odd years ago at the age of xxx teen. My sister and I were both taught at Grappenhall in Cheshire, which at the time was quite a light ring of eight bells. It’s now a light ring of ten bells. I ring anything up to a few of the standard eight methods, and I’m getting to grips, as we now have ten bells, with some of the royal methods. But I ring it so infrequently that I generally frustrate the team as I crash around. Trying not to lose count. Especially the most difficult thing being counting back from ten, which confounds me, to work out where I am. But it’s a genuine triumph to actually get round half a course of Cambridge Royal when everybody else is crashed about and I’ve not lost my place. So that’s a bit of a triumph.

Cathy: [00:01:47] Brilliant. Now, this episode is about people who are hard of hearing, so I’m going to talk a little bit about that with you and then talk about how that’s affecting your ringing. So first of all, when did you first notice that you were becoming hard of hearing?

Alison: [00:02:02] I’ve had experiences probably since my early twenties of having difficulties in groups, in hearing what people were saying, and I had my hearing tested at an early age and was told was nothing wrong. So I’ve put up with difficulties in groups for quite a long time and you sit around the table nodding and grinning when everybody else is laughing, wondering what on earth they’ve said. But it came to a head about five years ago when I actually went deaf in one ear through Glue ear and my GP sent me for some proper hearing tests again. 35 years later, they decided to test me again and decided yes, I actually did have some mild hearing loss, but it wasn’t severe. It was enough to affect my ability to hear words accurately because what your brain actually does is, to interpret sounds and makes the best guess as to what it’s heard. Which is why you get these jokes probably on TV when people say something and the responder says something completely different. And it’s because your brain is only half heard and it’s trying to guess what’s been said. So in a ringing context, that means that you can mishear numbers. And the hardest numbers to distinguish, as I battled with for a long time, has been numbers two and three. Now, you might think they sound completely different, but when they’re being shouted across a room in a noisy belfry. You can hear either number and you have to make an intelligent guess as to whether you’re affected by that shout or not. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t.

[00:03:32] So having been thoroughly tested five years ago, my GP sent me to a referral to Aintree Hospital and they recommended hearing aids. Which the NHS duly provided free of charge, and I was highly delighted. In fact, I think I almost wept with joy because I didn’t A). Have to pay for them and B). That actually realised that I was struggling. It’s only taken 35 years to convince them. So that in a ringing context they held for a little while. But I guess my hearing has slipped a little bit more. But it’s still not in the moderate or severe range of hearing loss. But it’s enough to defeat my ability to work out what somebody said across the room and tell me where to move my bell. And then I gave up on it within NHS when they decided that it would only test my hearing every three years. And I was two years from being tested and really struggling. And I opted then to explore the world of buying your own hearing aids. So I took the plunge and it’s been an absolute revelation.

Cathy: [00:04:33] What’s been the difference? What’s happened?

Alison: [00:04:35] The technology is so much better. And the hearing aids that I’ve got, have got different sound modes. So the one that I use most for ringing picks out voices and and reduces the sound of the background noise. So it reduces the bells a bit, but it picks out the voices. And now I can tell whether somebody saying nine or five or two or three and I’m able to recognise that people are telling me personally where I should be moving to, if I’m not listening to them properly. But the downside of that, I’ve also found is and it tends to be when you’re doing change ringing is that you get people on the sidelines talking. And so it ends up picking up what they’re saying as well. So you’re ringing but distracted by the talkers. So I’m starting to educate my tower when I’m trying to concentrate on something I’m really struggling to ring to just shut up. So I’m not being distracted by the speech of the spectators. I only want to hear the conductor. But what I would say is that, if you can’t hear very well, it doesn’t take a lot to diminish your hearing to make it difficult to hear speech. It can be very tiring concentrating to find out what somebody’s saying. And one thing the audiologist pointed out to me when he was testing my hearing was he knew whether I could hear or not by how much I was concentrating. So it is a struggle, but the technology is there, but unfortunately it is very expensive if you go down the private route.

Cathy: [00:06:10] And do you find your hearing aids comfortable? Because I’ve heard sometimes people say that they don’t wear them because they’re not comfortable.

Alison: [00:06:18] I think the problem is people will only put them in when they want to hear and they should wear them for longer because they can initially. You have a little cone on the end of a little tube and that cone can make your ears itch for a little while. But once there’s a little bit of build-up of wax, it becomes much more comfortable. But if you only wear them once in a blue moon every time you put them on they itch. And that’s the discomfort that people feel. Whereas you’re really better off, especially if you’ve got tinnitus as well. You’re better off wearing them all the time because the hearing aids are generally tuned to give a little bit of background noise that distracts you from tinnitus.

Cathy: [00:06:54] Yes. Can you just describe some people might not know what tinnitus is?

Alison: [00:06:57] Yeah, it’s a hiss or a hum that you hear all the time in the background and you can generally ignore it unless somebody asks you about it. Then instantly you can hear it and it can affect some people pretty badly. But most hearing aids will give out some background noise and it damps down. It’s your brain generating a noise because it can’t hear anything or it’s got missing frequencies, so it’s generating a noise. Then the other half of your brain picks it up and thinks that’s a blooming nuisance. So if you if you’ve got tinnitus and you’ve got hearing aids, ideally I think the recommendation is you keep wearing the hearing aids because they’re tuned to try and and tune out the tinnitus as well as help you to hear.

Cathy: [00:07:38] I see.

Alison: [00:07:39] Yeah.

Cathy: [00:07:40] And how much of a difference would you say that the hearing aids have made to you?

Alison: [00:07:45] Tremendous. Because it affects my working life. It affects my ability to use a mobile phone. Just all aspects of getting around and interacting with people, going to the pub with the ringers. My speech enhanced setting that I use at the tower, I use in the pub as well in a noisy pub, and I can sit around and chat with people and still hear them.

Cathy: [00:08:06] Because you were describing earlier that sometimes you would just having to to laugh and not really know what it was about. Has that changed with the hearing aids?

Alison: [00:08:13] Yes, absolutely it has. It has.

Cathy: [00:08:17] Oh, that that must be a big relief.

Alison: [00:08:19] So I know also it very much improves social interaction. I think what the doctors are recognising now that not being able to hear properly is very isolating and in older people is a contributing factor towards development of dementia. So if you can do something to improve your hearing because you’re struggling, you really should try and do it. I don’t knock the NHS. It was a good start. It got me on the road to working out why I couldn’t hear and I’ve just been in a lucky position to be able to afford to go down the private route now and get some really good hearing aids.

Cathy: [00:08:54] So to sum up, the things that other people can do is to be quiet in the ringing room if they’re not the conductor and the conductor. What other things could a conductor do to make things easier for somebody who’s hard of hearing?

Alison: [00:09:08] One is to enunciate really clearly. One of the most important things is at the end of a piece of ringing, change ringing instead of saying, ‘That’s all’. And they do it at my tower. They say ‘that is all’. And I’ll give you one reason why that’s quite important to me, because I was ringing on the treble to some surprise splice methods. And partway through that splice, somebody shouted Bristol. And all I heard was ‘that’s all’ and brought it around. So that is a simple thing, but there’s lots of people out there who don’t hear very well, who can’t hear the changes and little things like that enunciating and trying to make what you’re saying sound different from a ringing method. It’s quite important.

Cathy: [00:09:56] Was there anything else that you wanted to mention, Alison?

Alison: [00:10:01] When we had a bell project launched to replace our bells, I was very conscious that we needed to take down the ceilings in the tower in order to put in a new floor and very anxious to make sure that the sound levels didn’t exceed 80 decibels. Because that is getting to the limit beyond where frequent exposure can cause long-term damage to hearing. I think 85 is about the limit. So I used a phone app called Decibel to record what the levels were after we’d put in the new ceiling. And there’s a lot of carpet up there as well to reduce the sound noise. And I found that the bells were at about 75 decibels and the conductors were at about 85 decibels. But thankfully they don’t shout all the time. So it is quite useful if you’re in a tower. You think the bells are pretty, pretty loud to download an app onto your phone and just test it out. But you’ll probably find that people shouting are louder than the actual bells.

Cathy: [00:11:04] Okay. That’s really helpful. One of the questions I was going to ask you is, can you hear your bell?

Alison: [00:11:09] Yes. Yes, I can.

Cathy: [00:11:11] So even with the technology picking up voices rather than the bell noise you mentioned, you can hear your, Bell.

Alison: [00:11:17] I can still hear my bell. Yeah.

Cathy: [00:11:19] Yeah, because that’s quite important, isn’t it? Okay. And to sum up, what advice would you give to Ringers and the people around them when they think they’re losing their hearing?

Alison: [00:11:29] Generally, if you’ve got hearing loss and you’re having difficulty in a bell tower, you’ve usually got difficulty elsewhere in noisy situations. Or if like me, you’ve got a daughter who mumbles.

Cathy: [00:11:41] Ah.

Alison: [00:11:43] I would say go and get your hearing checked as well-known opticians, you can go and get a free hearing check. And some of them they do for the NHS as well. It’s well worth just going to find. And if they say you’ve got mild hearing loss, don’t discount it, because mild hearing loss can make it very difficult to interpret speech. It doesn’t take much to do it.

Cathy: [00:12:03] So my next guest is Chris Shore. And Chris, how would you describe your interest in bellringing to another bell ringer? When did you start bellringing and where are you up to?

Chris: [00:12:14] I started ringing on a pure impulse when I passed 50 because I think 50 is a time when you should start doing something new and challenging and mentally stimulating. So I started bellringing at 50. I’m now 59, so that tells you I’ve been ringing about nine years. But if you take out the last three because we all had to take out the last three, I’ve got about six years of ringing under my belt. If you want to ask about the standard of bell ringing, how I would describe that, I can quite happily ring rounds and call changes and on a good day, downhill with a following wind. I can ring simple methods.

Cathy: [00:12:47] Were you hard of hearing before you started ringing or afterwards?

Chris: [00:12:52] Long before actually my hearing loss stemmed initially from an infection that I had over 30 years ago. It’s an inner ear infection which left some nerve damage, so it’s irreparable and I’ve been living with it since then. So I’ve been quite hard of hearing for well over 30 years. It took me 20 of those years to get round to getting hearing aids, which I’m told is not untypical. My audiologist told me it usually takes people at least ten years to get round to doing something about hearing loss because often it creeps up on people. But I did eventually get hearing aids about 15 years ago, and so I was already wearing those when I started ringing.

Cathy: [00:13:28] And you didn’t see it as an impediment to ringing.

Chris: [00:13:31] I think it’s something that you’re only going to find that out when you try, aren’t you? So I went along on an impulse to the tower that happened to be practising on the evening that I decided I was going to give this a try. It happened to be Great St Mary’s in Cambridge. If anybody knows that tower, which has a lovely ring of 12, completely and totally inappropriate for a beginner, but they’re full of some very nice people, one of whom was the tower captain at a local tower and not very far from me and not very far from Great St Mary’s who who said “We practice on a Thursday, why don’t you come down there and I’ll teach you.” So that’s how I got into that. And I’ve always had the hearing that I had when I started bell ringing, it might have got slightly worse, and whether it’s been an impediment or not, it’s hard to say because I don’t know how much different a ringer I would be if I wasn’t hard of hearing when I started.

Cathy: [00:14:21] And how did you find learning?

Chris: [00:14:23] Quite, quite slow initially, but that’s been my experience of lots of things I’ve done in my life. The things that are hard to do and are worth doing, often take a long time to get the basics under your belt. And I would say practising once a week, it probably took me five or six months before I was able to safely handle a bell on my own and then start ringing for Sunday mornings and just ringing rounds for Sunday mornings. And that was the really big milestone for me. I’m a church goer anyway, and I’m a churchwarden at my local church and that was a really big milestone for me, was being able to take part on a Sunday morning. But that took 5 to 6 months.

Cathy: [00:15:02] And would you say that you enjoyed it the whole time or was it just a struggle to begin with with a goal in mind?

Chris: [00:15:09] No I did enjoy it. It’s something that the more I learned about it, the more it fascinates me. My background is, as a mathematician and a physicist and a software engineer, and Cambridge is stuffed full of ringers who are also mathematicians and engineers. So a lot of us think about bell ringing in the same way. And that sort of, a fascination and a curiosity with just how it all works in a kind of semi-mathematical way. So it’s always fascinated me. And no, I don’t think anything held me back.

Cathy: [00:15:38] No. Brilliant. Okay, so back to being hard of hearing. What effect did this have on you?

Chris: [00:15:46] Initially, I’m not sure it had any effect at all. When you’re simply learning how to handle a bell hearing doesn’t necessarily come into it. To me, that was a physical challenge. Being an engineer, having this mental picture of a wheel with a bell on it and a clapper up 40 feet above me, attached to the rope in my hands and manipulating that as a piece of mechanics, really. And to me, that was a physical challenge. It’s a mechanical challenge. So the sound really didn’t come into it then, but obviously fairly quickly they had three or four learners in the tower at the time and they start trying to get you to ring rounds together. Then yes, I started to find it a challenge and found that I really needed to develop what people would call rope sight very quickly as a backup to the fact that I couldn’t necessarily hear everything that the other ringers could hear.

Cathy: [00:16:34] So going back to just the hearing loss, you talked about getting hearing aids. Did you find them comfortable?

Chris: [00:16:43] Yes. I think one thing that put me off getting hearing aids for quite a long time was I went to the NHS and they gave me the traditional, quite bulky behind the ear hearing aids, which I hated, and I never wore them. And it’s only more recently when they’ve developed hearing aids that fit completely inside your ear. Yes, I’ve always found those comfortable to the extent that I quite frequently forget I’ve got them in because I just don’t notice them anymore. They are comfortable. You don’t really feel them. There’s no physical sense of having something in your ear or behind your ear or what have you. And I end up quite frequently ended up jumping in the shower without taking them out because I’ve got them in. [laughs]

Cathy: [00:17:25] And hearing aids you can have on different settings, I understand. Do you have them on a particular setting for ringing?

Chris: [00:17:33] Yes, you can. The first set of hearing aids I had didn’t have many different settings and they didn’t have any that particularly were better for ringing than any other. The set I have now, which are the second set I’ve got. I think technology just gets better all the time and they have a setting which is specifically for music. And on that setting they just seem to process sound in in a way that makes it easier to distinguish pitch, which obviously is important when you’re trying to distinguish a load of bells from each other. The first set I had, it was quite difficult to distinguish some pitches and I’d go to some towers and there would be maybe two bells that would actually sound exactly the same, or one of them that I couldn’t hear at all. That hasn’t gone away completely with the new set of hearing aids. But they are much better yet.

Cathy: [00:18:21] You’re talking a lot about being able to hear the bell. What about the conductor when ringing call changes or whatever?

Chris: [00:18:27] ,Do you know, that’s almost a bigger problem than not being able to hear the bell. One of the problems with hearing aids is they amplify everything, not just what you’re trying to listen to. Our human ears, I think, are very good at picking out the sound you want to hear. Hearing aids are very bad at that, and they just amplify everything. So you realise actually how much along with the sound of the bells, how much other noise there is in a ringing room, and you start to hear just an enormous amount just clattering and it sliders and stays just clattering around upstairs in the ringing room. And that’s almost as loud as the sound of the bell itself, and that becomes quite a big distraction. But yes, hearing conductors is to me a really big problem. I’m much more deaf in my right ear than I am in my left ear. So my left ear is reasonably good, but the right area is very bad. So I have to make sure, for instance, that the conductor is standing somewhere on the left hand side of the room to me. Otherwise, I literally cannot hear them at all. The other thing that really makes it work for me is making sure the conductor is easily within my eyesight. So not, for instance, standing immediately to the left of me, because then it would be quite easy to hear them, but not to see them.

Chris: [00:19:40] And I think in common with most people who are hard of hearing, I rely quite a lot on semi-lip reading and being able to tell when someone is talking and get a rough idea of what they’re saying and that helps me work it out. So I need to make sure the conductor is ideally directly opposite me or one place to the left of that so that I can see them easily and I can hear them easily. Also, my experience of all ringers, to be honest, is when you tell them that I don’t hear very well. Can you shout when you’re conducting? All Conductors are quite happy to shout and I need them to do that and I also need them when they can to make eye contact with me. And conductors I’ve ever worked with have been quite happy to do that. To really stare at me when they’ve got something coming up and that gives me a warning. Start listening now because the conductor is looking at me and then they’ll say whatever they’re going to say and I can look at them while they’re saying it. And that makes it much, much easier to understand.

Cathy: [00:20:35] Have you ever had a time where you’ve misunderstood or missed what’s going on?

Chris: [00:20:39] All the time. All the time. And again, my experience is conductors and other members of the band are very tolerant and quite happy, although I’m quite sure it’s really frustrating sometimes when I will totally misunderstand or someone will call, I don’t know, 2 to 3. And I’ll think actually what they said was stand next [laughs] and I’ll do completely the wrong thing. But most people will have a good laugh about it and be very tolerant of it. Yeah.

Cathy: [00:21:07] How does the tower setup make a difference to you? Does it or not?

Chris: [00:21:12] Yes, it does. The tower where I ring most often, my home tower is a ground floor ring and there’s an empty floor immediately above, just below the bell frame. So the bells are, I guess, about 40 feet above when you ring and there’s an empty floor in between. So the bells are not particularly loud inside. For me actually, that’s quite good, because I can use my hearing aids to amplify the sound of the bells, and I can hear them quite well. I have rung at towers with a much longer draft than that. And then it becomes a problem actually picking the bells out at all because they’re just that much quieter. But what is more of a problem is some towers I’ve rung out where the ringing floor is immediately under the bell frame and it’s much closer and the draft is much shorter. And there what I find is actually the bells are so loud that they completely overload my hearing aids and I can’t hear them at all. So on tower outings, there’s one or two towers that we’ve been to where I’ll go into the ringing room and people will start ringing. And I just think I can’t ring here. I just can’t do it. I’ll just sit that one out. And maybe if I stuck at it and fiddle around with hearing aid settings or fiddle around with where I stood or which bell I rung or whatever, maybe I could make it work in those towers, but I’ve never rung at one long enough to stick at it and see whether I could make it work. But yes, there have been towers where I’ve found it impossible to ring.

Cathy: [00:22:38] What ringing wise is next for you? What challenges are you setting yourself?

Chris: [00:22:43] Yes, I haven’t really, I think in common with quite a few people, haven’t really got stuck back into ringing properly after all the disruption of the last three years. And I think I know quite a few people in that situation. But just before the world went crazy three years ago, I had set myself the challenge that year. That would be what, the year beginning 2020 of managing to ring simple methods, including bobs and singles and whatever, and bring a proper method. I can ring Grandsire and Plain Bob as long as no one calls bob or single, in which case I’m completely lost. So I set myself the challenge of doing that, in that year beginning 2020, and obviously that never happened. So I think that’s got to be my challenge for 2023 is just getting to the point where I can get beyond a plain course of a simple method.

Cathy: [00:23:33] What’s the best piece of advice relating to bell ringing that you’ve ever received?

Chris: [00:23:37] Very first piece of advice that I had from a colleague of mine who introduced me to bell ringing before I started properly. The best piece of advice he gave me was don’t look up. Which, fair enough, absolutely. And don’t look down either. Look straight across and look at the people opposite you. The other piece of advice I had quite early on, which for someone who’s hard of hearing, worked really well for me, is work as hard as you can as early as you can at learning rope sight. And I used to spend a long time when other people were ringing on practice night, just standing slightly outside the circle and just sitting there watching and trying to, first of all, work out just who’s leading for every round and then just try and count the first two bells, the first three bells, the first four bells. And just by watching sally’s watching hands, just getting an idea of following the sequence of the bells all the time. And then when getting into ringing methods, spending a long time, very often standing behind the treble and just watching the treble, bobbing through a method and or hunting through a method and just watching him or her do that, and then learning to do that myself and doing it primarily by sight. And that was the best advice someone gave to me. Yeah, it’s not just hearing you’ve got to get sight in there as well.

Cathy: [00:24:54] So I think we’ve covered quite a lot. But was there anything else you wanted to bring up or mention? Yes.

Chris: [00:24:58] One thing I’ve found in several towers I’ve rung out, especially in my home tower, is that the treble and the tenor stand out much more than the other bells. They’re much easier for me to pick out from all the sound that’s going on. So I find myself quite often covering for the rest of the band who want to do something exciting. We have six bells, so if they want to ring some fancy Doubles method, then I’ll sit on the tenor and I’ll cover. And very often that comes down to counting, just counting very carefully for quite a long time and just keeping a steady rhythm. And if you can learn to do that, then you can ring a lot more and you could help the rest of the band ring something exciting while they want to do that. And you sit there and cover and the other one, the tenor. If you can learn to just plain hunt through bob methods or Grandsire methods that just have a treble hunting in and out all the time, if you can learn to do that, then again, that’s a very useful thing you can do while the rest of the band do fancy things around you. And certainly hunting on the treble is something I find I can largely do by sight, just by rope sight, even without having to listen very carefully. So I’d encourage you to learn how to cover and how to plain hunt on the treble through methods. And that way you can play a much more sort of active part in what goes on a practice night or other ringing sessions. Finally, I would just love to say to anyone who’s hard of hearing and wants to try a bell ringing, just do it. You’ll find towers welcoming. You’ll find if you’re upfront about your hearing issues, I’m quite sure people will be welcoming and very eager to help. Everybody’s hearing is different and it might work for you. It might not work for you, but the only way you’re going to find out is just try and just do it. Just go and give it a try because it’s great fun.

Cathy: [00:26:43] As part of this episode, I’d wanted to talk to somebody who knew about how we could get the level of sound control right in the ringing room. I’ve got my husband who’s going to talk to us. But Rog, tell me what qualifies you to to talk to us about this.

Roger: [00:26:59] I’ve recently retired from a 40 year career as a chartered surveyor, and I was involved in quite a lot of projects in schools where we were designing schools to minimise noise transmission between classrooms. We also had problems of noise from aeroplanes because a couple of the projects were on flight paths to airports. And also I did a lot of work on social housing, blocks of flats where we had problems of noise in neighbouring properties disturbing each other, so quite a bit of experience as well as even more experience working as a ringer, putting some of my professional experience to use in terms of noise problems in church towers.

Cathy: [00:27:37] It sounds like that will be useful for what we’re going to discuss. First of all, bells are very loud. Some people might think that Bell Ringers are subjected to that noise, and that’s going to adversely affect the hearing.

Roger: [00:27:50] Most rings of bells, the volume in the ringing room isn’t anywhere near enough to permanently damage your hearing. It obviously depends on the volume and the time of exposure. Typically, the volume in a ringing room is similar to the volume of your TV at home, so that shouldn’t really affect you. In terms of noise, Mike Banks and the Central Council have published some slides and what they recommend is an ideal volume of somewhere between 70 and 75 decibels.

Cathy: [00:28:20] First of all, what’s the decibel?

Roger: [00:28:22] That’s a very interesting question and I’m going to need to spend a little bit of time explaining it. There are a number of properties of sound and these are often misunderstood. So decibels are measures of sound pressure level or in layman’s language volume. And decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale. A decibel difference of ten decibels is actually effectively doubling the volume. It’s quite a strange measure. Things like rustling leaves and just the normal noise that you’d hear when you put your head out the window is probably somewhere around 40 to 50 decibels. As I’ve said, your television typically would probably be 70, 75 decibels. Where the bells are located at the top of the tower, it might be somewhere between 120 and 130 decibels. So that’s considerably more than 70 decibels. It’s a factor of (2, 4) 16 times.

Cathy: [00:29:18] So what would you say about what people have to do if they’re going to go into the bell chamber whilst ringing is going on?

Roger: [00:29:25] So certainly if you’re going up to watch the bells swinging, you really need to have proper headphones on, or ear defenders to protect yourself from the volume. I wouldn’t stay in where the bells are swinging for more than a few seconds with your fingers in your ears. I mean, that will damage your hearing and the other properties of sound that we need to talk about. So there’s volume. There’s also another property, reverberation, and people often confuse reverberation. Effectively reverberation is reflected sound or echo. And perhaps the most noteworthy of that example of that is Liverpool Cathedral, where once the bells pull off in rounds, the echo continues. And so you just get one continuous wall of sound. Normally in terms of bells, you get the bells striking and then the volume decays off until the next bell strikes. So when you come to measure decibels in terms of bells, it’s not a constant sound. It’s a sound that goes up and down constantly. So what the professionals use is what’s called an ‘A’ weighted scale, which adjusts the level to reflect an equivalent sound as if the bells were ringing continuously. Another property of sound which ringers will come across is structural sound, so you get noise transmitted through the structure, obviously blocks of flats, people moving furniture or walking around in the middle of the night affects people. You get that phenomenon in bell towers because when the clapper hits the bell, some sound is transmitted down through the structure. So you get a phenomenon known as Clapper Knock, which can be quite pronounced in brick or the few concrete towers that we have. So if you’ve got that problem, the bells probably need to be hung on rubber pads below the bearings to minimise the amount of structural sound.

Cathy: [00:31:20] And how would you measure decibels or what? You know what’s relevant for what we’re talking about.

Roger: [00:31:26] For practical purposes, you can get mobile phone apps, which will give you an indication of the level in decibels. But I think if you’re doing it professionally, you’d need a proper sound level metre. Professional ones can be quite expensive. I think the mobile phone app would probably give you an indication which would be enough to work out whether you’ve got a problem or not. You’re going to have two types of problem. You’re going to have the bells that are slightly too loud in the ringing chamber and is uncomfortable. Typically, not everybody’s going to be able to hear the instructions of the conductor, and especially if you’ve not got good hearing, that’s going to make it more difficult. The other problem you’re going to get is the bells are too quiet in the ringing room and you probably need to do something to increase the volume a bit.

Cathy: [00:32:14] So how do you do this? First of all, if they’re too loud, you can’t hear the conductor. It might be causing a problem to people’s hearing. What can be done about that?

Roger: [00:32:23] What you need to look at is the layout of the bells and the tower. Between the bells and the ringers, you’ve probably got an intermediate chamber and it depends what the floors are made of and what every acoustician will tell you is that you need to look for air paths between the bells and the ringers. And there’s a rule of thumb that 90% of the sound will go through 10% of the area. If you wind down your car window just a little bit, you’ll hear what’s going on outside quite clearly. You don’t need to open the car window all the way down to hear anything. The same principle applies to the bell tower. It’s that last 10% of air gaps between the bells and the ringers. That makes all the difference. So we had a problem at Cheriton in Hampshire recently, and we tracked it down to the clock weight shaft. And that’s quite a common problem because there was a very solid floor and ceiling between the bells and the ringers and the gap between the floor and the ceiling was stuffed completely with mineral wool insulation. And what we noticed was that the clock weight shaft was only half an inch thick boarding. So there was a big gap at the top of the shaft, which went all the way down through the ringing room. And most of the sound was coming down the clock-weight shaft. So what we had to do was put a cover on top of the clock-weight shaft to match the sound insulation value of the floor construction. And that made a huge difference. It knocked about six or seven decibels off the volume and brought it down from about 82 to about 76 decibels in the ringing room, which was much more comfortable and people could hear what the conductor was saying.

Roger: [00:34:11] But there are other air paths which you just need to track down. Obviously, you can’t eliminate the rope holes. There are, if you look at Mike Bank’s notes however, some things that you can do with the rope holes to help down the amount of sound passing down with perforated tubes or again, mineral insulation. Just talking about insulation briefly for a moment, a lot of people confuse thermal insulation with sound insulation. So if you look at mineral wool, it has some effect, but it’s not a perfect sound insulator. Polystyrene is just no good at all as a sound insulation. And I’ve seen that in one or two towers. But what you need to do to get good sound insulation is increase the mass. What you do is if you double the mass, you halve the volume of sound. So if it’s a relatively thin floor, again, doubling up on the boarding also helps. We had another tower in Hampshire at Twyford where there was a lead floor underneath the bells for weather protection to stop rainwater coming through the louvres and then down the tower. And during the recent restoration project that was removed and that made the bells considerably louder in the ringing room. The converse is obviously true. Once you’ve dealt with the air paths, if you increase the mass of the floor, you can also reduce the volume of the sound.

Cathy: [00:35:32] So when you say increase the mass of the floor, you just mean put more layers or more stuff into the floor.

Roger: [00:35:38] Yeah. If you’ve got inch thick floorboards on the floor of the bells, then if you, in theory, if you double the thickness of the floorboards, e.g. by putting a ceiling in, for example underneath, you can effectively double the insulation value of that floor. Again, if you look at Mike’s slides, he gives various indicative values of different types of floor construction and ceiling construction and the effect that they would have, but obviously they can only be indicative. Again, it depends on air paths and how many rope holes and other perforations you’ve got in the floor construction or ceiling construction.

Cathy: [00:36:15] So we’ve talked about if it’s too loud, what about if it’s too quiet in the ringing room? You can’t hear the bells at all.

Roger: [00:36:22] There you need to look at opening up or providing some additional openings and you need to be slightly careful. One of the common problems is that you’ve often got bells on two different layers, and you’ll find that the bells on the top tier of the bell frame are too quiet. And a number of towers, particularly ten and 12 bell towers, What you’ll find they do is put drain pipes from the top tier with perhaps some sort of hopper to collect the sound from the bells on the top tier and take it down to the ringing room. It produces a slightly nasal sound, but at least you can hear the bells more clearly. And especially where you’ve got higher numbers of bells, you do want to be able to hear every single one. I remember one well-known ringer describing one tower as ringing there, as ringing with a moving gap because you just couldn’t hear the trebles. That’s one thing, is to do drainpipes. The other thing is we did have a problem at the Isle of Dogs, for example, where the bells were too quiet in the ringing room and we opened up a little bit of the hatch underneath tenor and also underneath the third. And that just let a little bit more sound down. Again, if you’ve got a spiral staircase, you can leave the door at the top of the spiral staircase open and that’ll let some of the sound down into the ringing room. Again, it’s all about just allowing a little bit more sound down. You don’t need to rip out a complete floor. A relatively small gap will let a lot of sound through.

Cathy: [00:37:47] What about if the bells are indistinct from each other? Is there anything you can do about that where you can’t hear the difference between the different tones of the bells?

Roger: [00:37:55] Yeah. So that’s also a problem in a number of towers. So I talked about the problem about one or two bells being indistinct. But if you’ve got all of the bells being indistinct, it’s probably because there’s too much echo. It’s the right volume but there’s a lot of echo there. What you need to do is introduce some absorbent material. The typical one is carpet, which absorbs quite a lot of sound, but putting carpet underneath bells is probably a little bit amateurish. But there are other reflective surfaces that you can use. You need to be slightly careful about mineral wool, but you want an absorbent surface underneath the bells, a layer of carpet underneath the bells is usually enough. And even ringers find that if they’ve restored their bells and thrown out the ringing room carpet, when they try them out, they actually find that they sound completely different in the ringing room and by putting a new ringing chamber carpet in. Suddenly the bells become totally different. So have a look at both upstairs and downstairs what you can do to introduce some absorbent materials. So sound of the bells comes straight down to the ringers’ ears.

Cathy: [00:39:07] So we’re talking about putting carpet underneath the bells and in the ringing room. I’ve heard of some people talking about putting carpet on the walls of the ringing room. Is that something that you would recommend?

Roger: [00:39:17] It’s not something that I’ve seen, but wood panelling is also an excellent absorbent surface and you’ll see a lot of ringing chambers have got wood panelling in the ringing room. So again, you’d have the same problem. If you remove the wood panelling, you’d find the acoustics were quite different and acoustics is quite a complicated field which as I said at the beginning, people often misunderstood. There’s lots of different properties there. There’s no harm in taking a bit of professional advice. And the other thing is that in terms of echo, if you talk to most musicians, they’ll talk about the fact that the nave of the church is often quite echoey when it’s empty and once it’s full with an audience because of all that absorbent material on people’s clothing, the acoustics are completely different, and the same applies to a ringing chamber.

Cathy: [00:40:07] Thank you to my guests, Alison Collins, Chris Shore and Roger Booth. Roger referred to Mike Banks’ slides. These are slides accompanying a seminar that Mike Banks gave to the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. It was called ‘Sound control inside and outside of your tower’. They are linked to from our show notes for this episode, which can be found on . If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it. This podcast was put together by a team. Special thanks go to Anne Tansley-Thomas, Emily Roderick, John Gwynne, Emily Watts, Leslie Belcher and the Society of the Cambridge Youths for the recording of their ringing.

[00:40:54] [Bells ringing rounds]