Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Mud on the dog, blood on the ropes


The mud? Our snowflake melted, the moor is waterlogged, ditches and streams are overflowing, and although water is trying to flow downhill, it has to queue up and wait its turn. Water has nowhere left to go. The dog ploughs happily through it all, acquiring an abstract expressionist look to her fur. The final dog walk event nearing home must be in the ditch we call the Dog Wash.

Damp in the Devon air oozes into cob, thatch, wood  and stone. I am a church bell ringer and it also oozes into the bell ropes if they are not kept dry between ringing sessions. We have an extraordinary system to keep our ropes dry in the main tower – ropes are held within a large tube and a piano heater placed inside. But we ring in other places where there is no heat available.  Damp ropes become hard and tight and they also shorten in length. It makes them particularly hard to ring and is wicked on the hands, often resulting in blisters and friction burns – hence occasional drawn blood.  We had a long practice session on Saturday and I scored a four-plaster pair of hands this morning. Later, during the day’s ritual dog-mudding, I wondered what fibre is used for bell ropes.

These two quotes are from the website of Mendip Ropemakers Ltd

Flax has become the most widely used natural fibre for Church bell ropes. Flax is widely available at a reasonable price but the quality can vary depending on a wet or dry harvest. Flax is hard wearing and soft to handle. It is liable to absorb moisture and stiffens in damp or humid conditions. Longer ropes can change in length as a result of wet & dry weather.

Hemp is the traditional material for bell ropes. It is a superior quality of natural fibre rope, giving greater strength and abrasion qualities. Hemp is not as readily available as flax and is therefore more expensive. Hemp rope may seem a little hard on the hands initially, but softens with use. Hemp is also liable to absorb moisture and stiffens in damp or humid conditions. Longer ropes can change in length as a result of wet & dry weather.

There are several companies that make ropes, among them Ellis Bell Ropes in Leicestershire whose site shows how the sallies are made, by inserting coloured wool into the rope. The sallies are the tufted lengths which ringers grip while ringing; you can see some of them in the images above. They are often striped, which makes it easier to see them whizz up and down in dark bell towers.

Man-made fibres are also used: I saw references to pre-stretched polyester and something called Dyneema which is a ‘polyethylene core shrouded with a polyester sheave’. You can also buy combination ropes, where the bottom of the rope is flax and the top of man-made fibre.

Why do I ring? I enjoy being part of a team following an ancient tradition. I love old churches, and ringing in different places gives me the opportunity to climb towers. And, crusty old cynic that I am, I enjoy the ceremony, celebration and hope signified by a wedding and the theatrical moment when a peal of bells announces the emergence of the newly-married couple into the daylight. In our small town, there is normally a large crowd waiting.

4 thoughts on “Mud on the dog, blood on the ropes

  1. So bell ringers suffer the same problems as weavers with flax (linen)! The fibre is notorious for stretching and contracting as moisture levels in the air fluctuate, gaining a reputation for being one of the most tricky fibres for new weavers. However it can be beaten into submission, and it is worth the effort.

  2. Hi creativespinning
    Therefore, I assume spinners would find the same properties a problem with variations in the weather. Do you have an idea why a wet or dry harvest would make a difference?

  3. ‘Mud on the dog, blood on the rope’ should have been written by PD James.

    Only very distantly related, I wonder if anyone who reads this is watching the Guy Martin series called “How Britain Worked” (More4 on a Sunday night)? I know Guy from bike racing feats – a TT hero – but this series is fascinating, especially the first two: the first was restoring a steam engine, and the second was restoring an amazing 150 year old saw mill powered by a turbo driven water wheel in Wensleydale. The gubbins hadn’t been touched for 100 years yet still worked apart from one broken vane. He built a wooden velocipede (the very first bicycle) from a long dead elm tree. If you can see any of the past ones or catch the next I would recommend it. The last one was rebuilding Llandudno pier, which included ravishing shots of the ravishing limestone Great Orme – a favourite childhood playground.

    I was reminded of this by the shrinking rope phenomenon. Making the iron tyres for the wooden wheels, the iron strip had to be cut quite a bit shorter than the circumference of the wheel before being welded into a hoop, it was then heated on a fire (of pallets) to expand it, quickly dropped over the wheel, knocked into place and quickly quenched to prevent the wood being burnt. It shrank to a rock tight fit. I know it’s not the same at all but physics is jolly interesting isn’t it!

    • Thanks, and I don’t know how we have missed this series, Richard. It sounds good and I shall investigate. Re physics and more particularly chemistry – I wished I had paid more attention to these subjects. I was poorly taught by a hopeless teacher and worse still, the benches in the lab were excruciatingly uncomfortable. I didn’t see the point of chemistry and physics, messed the poor woman about and decided to do art instead. How ridiculous, in retrospect, that one makes life-defining choices based on the discomfort of a bench. Or perhaps, how apt.

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