AS the clock chimes on the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, we'll raise our glasses and toast the coming year.

The more superstitious among us will open the back door to let the old year out and the front door to welcome the new one in.

Listen then for the sound of church bells pealing as bellringers ring in the New Year across the district and in the heart of Salisbury itself.

Ringing chambers are not the most uplifting of places at this time of year - most are cold and dusty, approached via dark churchyards and steep spiral staircases.

Bellringers themselves seem, in contrast, the cheeriest sort of folk, who put making friends high on the list of why it's a good idea to learn the ropes in the first place.

"Bellringers are the friendliest people around," asserts Jane Hay, who is one of St Mary's band of ringers in Fordingbridge.

"They are just keen to pass on their skills and have fun.

"At Christmas and New Year, we generally have a bottle of champagne up in the tower because it's a special occasion."

Bellringing in the English style, with rope and wheel, goes back to the 16th century and is not found outside the English-speaking world.

Bell tower captain of St Mary's Keith Halstead explains the mechanics: "The rope goes through a hole in the ceiling and round a wheel.

"When you pull the rope, the wheel turns the bell full circle so that the clapper hits the side."

The next pull reverses the process.

St Mary's has a ring of eight bells, one for each note in the musical scale.

"The art," says Keith, "is to ring the bell up to the balance point and no further.

"It takes weeks and weeks to master it, especially working in time with other bells."

Different size bells from the light treble to the heavyweight tenor take different times to complete the swing and it is part of the bellringer's skill to time their bell in with the others.

Margaret Romano, who is captain at St Thomas's Church in Salisbury, says: "You learn step by step and at the beginning it is difficult - it's like mathematical computations."

Keith agrees: "It's an intellectual exercise - a bit like doing a crossword with a physical side."

My own introduction to bell-ringing did not start auspiciously.

Ducking sensibly low beneath the stone lintel leading into the bell tower at All Saints Church at Broad Chalke, I still managed to crack my head glancing upwards at the last minute to read the notice just inside the entrance.

Mind Your Head, it warned.

Clambering up the winding stone staircase beyond takes you to the large, high-ceilinged, windowless room where eight ropes hang down in a circle, their lower section thickened by the softer mass of the sally, by which the ringers grip the rope, thus avoiding blisters and rope burn.

The upper sections of hemp disappear through holes into the bell chamber above, reached by a vertical rung ladder and through a trapdoor.

Up here, the lighting is dimmer and what there is attracts a cloud of flies still active in December.

The bellringers fight a never ending battle to keep numbers down - the floor is littered with winged corpses - and no one can explain the attraction that the dark and intermittently noisy interior holds for the insects.

Stand up here when a session is, as it were, in full swing and there is one hell of a din as the bronze bells, including the mighty tenor cast in c.1320 by London founder Simon de Weston in the churchyard below, give voice.

These days there are eight of them, thanks to a grant from the Millennium Commission's Ringing in the Millennium fund, which allowed Broad Chalke to restore five of its ring of six and fund the casting of two new bells, upgrading the peal to eight.

The sixth original bell, a treble cast by Salisbury founder Clement Tozier, was replaced as it was damaged beyond repair "Tuned by a hammer and chisel by some idiot" retired brigadier Ian Fowler, who ran the Bells Restoration Appeal in the village, says contemptuously.

Accommodating the new bells in the cramped tower required a lot of calculated shifting around - badly positioned bells can shake a tower to pieces - but they were in place by the start of the new millennium.

These days, it seems, it is ringers not bells that are in short supply.

Every bell tower is crying out for new blood to keep the church bells ringing.

Malcolm Penney, tower captain at All Saints Church, says that recruiting new bellringers is an old problem.

"Most youngsters learn, then other interests take over.

"But if the captain or others induce you to carry on, it becomes addictive."

Malcolm should know - he has been ringing for 44 years now.

Bellringing encompasses a wide age range - the youngest at Broad Chalke is 15 and at Fordingbridge, nine-year-old Martin King is just about heavy enough to pull the third bell, but has to do it standing on two boxes.

Reg Jones, who died in September at the age of 91, was a ringer at All Saints for more than 70 years.

Malcolm tells me that bellringing is a matter of technique rather than strength.

I try my hand and the rope nearly pulls my arms from their sockets - the trick is not so much in pulling the rope as knowing when to let go as the swing of the bell carries it (and you, should you hold on too long) upwards.

Timing and practice are the key. Oh, and learning call changes and methods.

"It takes time to teach people method," says Malcolm.

"We don't have sheet music in front of us - we memorise it."

Knowing which bell to ring when is all down to a mind-boggling little book full of columns of numbers, which are the bellringers' equivalent of sheet music.

All the permutations of methods that rejoice in names like Plain Bob Minor, Cambridge Surprise Major, Grandsire Doubles and Stedman Triples are recorded in here, ranging in complexity from the relatively simple to the hideously complicated.

What you ring and for how long is down to expertise and experience.

For celebrations, a quarter peal is likely to be the norm - a full peal of seven bells encompasses 5,040 changes and takes more than three hours to complete.

More bells take longer, much longer. Peals are rarely undertaken and woe betide the ringer who screws up after hours of ringing.

Wringing of another sort could well be on the cards.

But New Year is a time of good will and forgiveness and the odd clanger might just be overlooked.