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We normally associate that phrase with dubious commercial activity, which has nothing to do with rope, but in our case there was nothing dubious about it, and it was very much to do with rope.
Bell ropes aren’t just any old bits of rope. Each has three parts with a different function. The top-end runs all the way up from the ringer to the bell, where it is fixed to the bell-wheel. Any springiness in the top end makes the bell difficult to control, especially with long ropes like ours, which are over 50 feet long. To avoid this problem, our top-ends use high grade pre-stretched polyester, which also stops them shrinking in damp weather like natural fibre.
At the other end is what the ringer holds. The tail-end length is half the circumference of the bell wheel (8 to 10 feet in our case). The rope is tucked through itself, which provides a double thickness to grip, and allows the length to be adjusted. It is natural fibre, normally flax.
The sally is between tail-end and top-end, about a yard of thick woollen tufting built into the rope. The ringer holds the sally at alternate strokes.
The custom made ropes are not cheap (ours are about £150 each) so we try to get as much life out of them as possible. The shortest lived part is the tail end. The tucks weaken it, and the stress concentrates at the weak points. It is continually bending, and hitting the floor, all of which take their toll. Splicing on a new tail end gives a failed rope a new lease of life. We have a stock of rope, cannibalised from old bell ropes (prior to polyester tops) and even when that runs out, plain rope is cheap to buy.
Polyester top ends are virtually indestructible. In 30 years we have never thrown one away. Sallies are quite durable, but they eventually wear thin in the middle. Most sallies don’t last quite that long though, and have to be discarded when successive splices shorten the stub of rope attached to the sally, making it too short to splice.
We had several rope failures in recent months, which ate into our stock of (repaired) spares. So with her exams behind her, our steeple keeper Mhairi Miller organised a mass splicing morning to repair the backlog. Between us we repaired six ropes. To buy six new ropes would have cost £900. That’s not bad for a morning’s work. Money for old rope in fact.
John Harrison (July 2010)
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