Learning the ropes
PUBLISHED: 13:25 24 March 2016
As a young bell ringer on the Somerset Levels, Becky Dunnett had no idea that one day the bells would become such a big part of her life - until she found herself compelled to learn the ropes.
A chance conversation with a friend in the pub led to the discovery of a huge gap in the market and now Becky, 28, is the founder and owner of Mendip Ropemakers, one of just two companies worldwide making ropes for English church bells.
Becky explains: “I learned how to be a bell ringer when I was 11. I was brought up in Huish Episcopi near Langport and there was nothing much else for kids to do except go bellringing.
“When a rope broke it took a long time to get a new one, sometimes 18 months to two years. I don’t know why because now I know how long it takes to make one, it’s hard to understand.”
But making bell ropes is not a skill that has been handed down to Becky through generations, like many traditional crafts. Instead Becky had to teach herself how to make the ropes by hand through trial and error.
After gaining a degree in psychology from Southampton University, Becky returned to the family home in Somerset and started a job as a one-on-one tutor for autistic children at a private school near Chard.
“It was a very rewarding job but also very tiring and I would get home totally exhausted. I prefer to be more practical and be outdoors so I was looking for something else to do,” she says.
“A friend was starting to look at bell ropes and how they are made. We had a chat in the pub and I showed an interest.”
Becky, who now lives in Low Ham between Langport and Somerton, was able to rent some space at a bell engineering company in Radstock and there started the painstaking process of learning to make ropes by hand.
‘I taught myself how to make bell ropes. People found out what we were doing and I was getting orders in so had to make the decision to either continue this as a hobby or start a business.”
But was she any good at it? “No, not at first,” she laughs. “It took a long time to get the theory behind it. It is very easy to make a rope on paper but not so easy making a really good rope itself.
“It was a case of getting an old bell rope, taking it apart and seeing how it was put together, watching videos on YouTube and experimenting. You can get the theory but it’s so hands on that you just have to keep on doing it. We have been going for nearly four years but only in the past two years have the ropes been of the standard I am happy with.
“One thing I have been quite stubborn about is that we make all our ropes by hand. I think it’s important to keep it traditional. The quality with machines is not the same as working by hand. The tradition has been going for so long – why change it?”
Mendip Ropemakers was launched as a limited company in September 2012. Becky employs three members of staff, including her 65-year-old dad Peter who she trained up herself. Peter’s background is in fine art restoration and picture framing and he had a business in South Petherton but decided he didn’t want to continue with the picture framing.
Now he spends three days a week making ropes with Becky and the rest of the week at home pursuing his fine art restoration work. The pair are assisted by Bryan Evans, who Becky is also training up.
In April 2014, the company relocated to new premises at the heart of the Somerset Levels at Isle Brewers. The new building offers more space and two fully operational rope walks, meaning Becky, Peter and Bryan can manufacture more ropes, faster, supplying a complete new set of ropes within one month.
And to cap it all, last year Mendip Ropemakers won Somerset New Business of the Year in the 2015 Somerset Business Awards.
So what does the future hold? Becky is keen to expand but says sourcing staff for such a unique craft is not easy.
“If we expand we will need to take on more people but it is so specialist that a lot of people don’t even think about it. It’s not like I can put an advert out there for ropemakers as they simply don’t exist.
“I would like to offer apprenticeships but there are no books, no college courses.”
Becky explains that the ropes they make are very specific, designed for full circle English change ringing where each bell is attached to a wheel and turns 360 degrees, needing one specialist rope for each bell.
Most churches will have six to eight bells but an abbey or cathedral tend to have more, such as Wells Cathedral which has 10.
This style of ringing is only found in English-speaking countries but there are no companies making them outside of the UK so Becky’s long list of clientele includes churches and cathedrals in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
“We have done a lot of projects abroad, including cathedrals in Quebec, Canada, and Washington DC, in the US, and we have done new ropes for a church in Harare, South Africa,” adds Becky.
But one of the biggest projects the company has done was a new set of 14 ropes for the bells at Buckfast Abbey in Devon.
And yet Becky has certainly not forgotten the churches where her love of bell ringing stemmed from and works with St Martin’s Church in Kingsbury Episcopi and St Peter’s & St Paul’s Church in South Petherton, which she also uses as testing grounds for new materials and techniques.
So does Becky still enjoy a spot of bell ringing? She laughs: “I still do some bell ringing. I used to go every day when I was at university, it was quite an obsession.
“I don’t have the time now and I am working with bell ringing all day so I don’t really fancy it when I go home!” w