Project Pickled Egg - Part 19

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Belfast Surprise Major

In Part 18, I left Glasgow hanging in the air, unable to come to a conclusion without doing some more market research. in this article I am looking at Belfast and being more decisive.

Belfast was first pealed 20 years after Glasgow, in 1967, and like Glasgow it was devised to be about the most challenging blue line of its day. In the absence of challengers, these two have cemented themselves as the only two regularly rung difficult methods beyond the ‘Standard 8’.

Belfast is difficult in a very different way to Glasgow. At first glance it might look to be the harder of the two - it certainly has lots of points and spikey bits while Glasgow has quite a few parts that look like plain hunting! Belfast is an all action, breathless affair, particularly 5ths and 6ths place bells. However I will now assert that Belfast is actually the easier of the two.

Firstly Belfast is an MX method, i.e. an 8ths place method in which 8ths place bell becomes 6ths. The place bells therefore come up in the order 8 6 4 2 3 5 7. When you call a Bob in an MX method, the bells in 5ths place and above dodge at the lead end and repeat the lead they have just rung. This has several practical advantages. A lead that you have just rung is easier to ring than a different one, it is easier for the conductor to see four of the bells doing the same thing again (repetition generally helps ringers), and if there are roll-ups in the lead that is repeated you will get them again, so it is good for certain kinds of musical composition.

In terms of learning the method, calling a Bob every lead gives a three-lead touch that can be learned and rung for practice, with up to four people only having to learn one lead. The other three just need to ring a four-bell frontwork. It is a good and exciting challenge for a practice, and Glasgow does not offer anything similar. Bobs in Belfast make things easier for everyone, while Bobs in Glasgow are a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, as you ring Belfast you find yourself working with course bells and the bells around you quite a lot, where Glasgow feels a lot more random.

There is something interesting in the peal and quarter peal statistics for the two methods. Peals of Glasgow outnumber peals of Belfast almost two to one. For quarter peals the gap is much closer, although there are more quarters of Glasgow. I think this tells us something about the two that supports my earlier assertion. At this level peal ringers are ringing Glasgow for the challenge whereas Belfast doesn’t offer nearly as much attraction. The narrower gap with quarters may indicate a lower success rate for quarters of Glasgow as it is much harder to conduct, and quarter peal bands are likely to be weaker. Certainly one band I rang with for many years was able to ring a quarter peal of Belfast but we gave up on Glasgow.

In Part 18 I tried to explain how the above work in Glasgow is a useful one which only really becomes apparent on higher numbers. The same is not true of Belfast, where the structure of the backwork manifest itself more clearly in the major version. In Belfast all bells from 5ths place upwards start with a point in the immediately adjacent place, then go to a fishtail in the next position, followed by treble bob hunting. So 6ths place bell does point 5, then up to fishtail in 78 when the treble is dodging in 34, before setting off to treble bob down (meeting the treble in 56). 10ths place Belfast above on higher numbers starts with a point 9, then up to fishtail in 11-12, before treble bobbing down. Four of the seven place bells in Belfast Major essentially start by doing the same thing – near point, fishtail, dodge (unless the treble is passed).

Although this ‘formulaic’ backwork is clearer on 8 than that of Glasgow, it isn’t actually very popular on higher numbers and so it is not a reason in itself for learning Belfast. There isn’t a method regularly rung on 10 or above with Belfast above work. Nevertheless, if you can appreciate the complete structure, and how it works in relation to where the treble is, it will stand you in good stead for similar things.

So what of the work below the treble? Well there are some good features here which commonly appear in other hard methods. Of particular interest are the cascading ‘big dodges’ over the half lead – so where 6ths place bell does point 4, point 6, point 3, point 5, with the transition between the point 6 and point 3 being across the half lead. That is quite a common feature in trickier methods. The big dodges have the points at the same stroke. The structure has lots of places where bells work together in helpful ways. All this doesn’t actually generate musical runs off the front, though – this is not a Bristol or a Cornwall.

So, repeating a couple of sentences from the article on Glasgow, there is no doubt Belfast presents a significant challenge the first time you see it or ring it. But is it any good? Is it worth the effort? Does it make it into the Project Pickled Egg larder?

Again I am going to assess against the original PPE tests.

1. It should be musical in the plain course

Nothing to write home about

2. It should introduce a useful new skill, technique or concept, and hence be progressive

Yes it does – formulaic backwork, the cascading big dodges

3. It should not have limiting falseness

I am not an expert but I am told this is not ideal

4. Some familiarity is helpful

OK on this one - there are lots of ringers who know Belfast which makes it quite accessible for the learner.

Like Glasgow, none of that is compelling. On the PPE Facebook discussion group there was similar debate on the merits of Belfast which I eventually summarised as follows:

Arguments in favour of inclusion in PPE:

• Formulaic above work (it is good to get used to learning different formulaic above works)

• It is included in some well known compositions (Hortons 4 particularly)

• Being an MX method (like Bristol), it can be rung as a three-lead touch, which is useful in a practice environment

• Hugely structured to help in understanding how bells work together even in difficult methods

• Concept of pairs of points at the same stroke, crossing over the half lead, is very useful and not seen before

Arguments against inclusion:

• It is nothing special musically

• The structure above the treble is not particularly popular

• Falseness gets in the way of exploiting musical potential

• There are better alternatives for introducing the same concepts

So it’s not looking good for Belfast. Apart from its inclusion in some well known compositions, and its familiarity, none of the other arguments in Belfast's favour are unique to Belfast. If it is decided that Project Pickled Egg needs to go as far as methods with this degree of difficulty, Belfast doesn’t make the shortlist.

Note: Part 23 did in fact introduce Mareham which includes many of the teaching points from Belfast but in a method more fitting to the Project.