Those lucky enough to have a church within hearing distance with a ring of bells will be familiar with the satisfying cascade of sounds floating through the air on a Sunday morning.

They are sounds which have become a part of our culture, marking not just the Sunday service but important events, from weddings and funerals to special anniversaries.

For hundreds of years bell ringers have been bringing music to people’s ears, but if you think it sounds easy stop here – it’s not.

The art of bell ringing, or campanology, to use its technical name, is complicated and it takes years of practise to master.

There are only five places in the district which have bell towers in their churches – Hexham, Ovingham, Wylam, Newton and Allendale, where at St Cuthbert’s Church a group of 12, known as a band, meet each week to practise, before adjourning to their local pub.

Climb the steps inside the bell tower and you enter a world of different terminology – of ‘bobs, ‘singles’ and ‘plain courses’– and also a world of friendship and camaraderie.

“It’s a steep learning curve,” said Allendale’s tower captain Shirley Brown, a member of the congregation at St Cuthbert’s who took up bell ringing with her husband Jim when numbers in the band were dropping.

“In any tower, the numbers go up and down in a cycle so I decided to try it,” she said.

“And you’ve got to do your homework,” added Jim.

Just learning how to use the ropes – the bottom part is called a tassle, the fluffy part above a sally – is a challenge in itself.

One you’ve mastered that, you can move on to ringing in rounds.

So, for example if you have eight bells in the tower, as they do at Allendale, a round is starting down the scale from bell one to eight. A reverse round is eight to one.

Then comes the change ringing when someone calls out and changes the order in which the bells strike. And if that is hard to grasp, method ringing takes it to the another level where a seemingly countless number of permutations have to be memorised.

Calling a ‘bob’ switches the bells around so they are in yet another order, extending the possible number of permutations in a particular method.

At this advanced stage you are in the realm of seasoned professionals who can ring a full peal. This involves a mind-boggling minimum of 5040 changes without repetition and takes around three hours to complete.

“Handling a bell properly can take anything from a few days to a few weeks,” said Milton Armstrong, who has been bell ringing for around 15 years.

“But then you have the problem of learning the methods.

“People find that challenging and have different ways remembering and you can’t be too prescriptive because people learn things in different ways.”

On the wall of Allendale’s bell tower is a list of changing sequences of numbers corresponding to each bell – this particlular one called Bastow Bob Doubles. “That is a plain course with 16 changes,” explained Shirley.

“In order to make it more interesting all these methods have what is called a touch – so in some place in there we make a bob or single so that adjusts that pattern. A quarter peal is one method with a minimum of 1,260 changes without repetition.

“We rang some quarter peals on the 100th anniversary of the two bell ringers we lost in the First World War. We do it for two reasons, to help remember the method and to practice.”

Watching the band in action is mesmerising, subtle changes being made as instructions like “bob minimus” are called.

And the whole tower sways as the mellifluous sounds fill the air and the environs of the east Allen Valley.

This is understandable because there are more than two tons of cast bronze swinging around above the bell ringers’ heads.

The heaviest of the bells, the tenor, weighs more than 10cwt (that’s about half a ton) and strikes with a resounding note of G.

It takes considerable effort to ring it, but as well as being the equivalent of a work-out in the gym, bell ringing is an incredibly social activity that brings people together from all walks of life.

“It’s very friendly,” said Shirley. “If you go somewhere on holiday you can find out where the bells are and go and ring with them.

“You can’t learn bell ringing on your own. You always need someone with you, for safety and you have the other people to learn from.”

There’s a definite bond among the band and they are understandably proud of their ring of eight bells, cast by the John Taylor foundry in Loughborough. Six date from 1906 and two from 1934.

“These are lovely bells,” said Milton. “Some people call them a musical box. They are delightful bells to ring and sound lovely.”

Elizabeth Beardsley who has been ringing for 60 years agreed: “Yes. Some other bells sound mournful because they are in the minor key.”

“And some bells do not move as easily,” added Shirley.

“Every tower is different,” added Jim and Shirley summed up with the one thing which brings all bell ringers together. “It is absolute teamwork,” she said.