Her hands were blistered. Her forehead was sweaty. But after she rode down the elevator yesterday afternoon from the Washington Cathedral's bell tower, Colleen Kollar, a 33-year-old engineer, seemed satisfied.

Along with nine other bell ringers, she had just spent almost 3 1/2 hours in the belfry, pulling on 50-foot ropes to ring heavy iron bells. The bells had been been played in 5,022 combinations -- no two the same -- to make a full peal.

"It's the most difficult thing I do -- mentally and physically," Kollar said. "You have to stand there and ring for more than three hours and be perfect. You do it with a group, and the group has to be perfect. It's neat."

As thousands of people celebrated the Fourth of July at beaches and the Mall, members of the Washington Ringing Society took to bell towers at the Old Post Office Pavillion and the Washington Cathedral to attempt three peals in two days.

"It's extraordinary to do so much ringing," said John King, a lawyer who, as bell master, is head of the group. "The Fourth of July is a special time for us."

Also, it turned out, a somewhat frustrating time. Although the peals went well Friday morning at the post office and yesterday afternoon at the cathedral, yesterday morning's attempt at the post office was ended after 2 1/2 hours because one member of the group was unable to continue.

"It was a question of stamina," King said. "The striking was not up to par. You've gotten so far into it, so it's pretty disappointing. But that's what had to be done. You know, if there's a mistake, the peal has to end. That's the rule."

Edward Martin, a bearded, burly art teacher who was conductor of yesterday afternoon's peal, explained that the rules, like the bells themselves, come from England, where ringing in 10-bell combinations -- called change ringing -- has flourished since the mid-17th century. Under the rules, a full peal is at least 5,000 combinations with no repeats. Martin, who lives in Annapolis, comes from England.

Changing the order in which the bells are rung and keeping track of them by memory "can be an extremely complex thing," Martin said. "It calls for a mental agility that's hard to define. You've got to remember what you're doing and what you do next. Then you must make sure the bell does what you want it to do, not what it wants to do. So many things can go wrong.

"There's a lot of pressure," Martin added, "but it's self-inflicted, because the public usually hasn't any idea what's going on."

Ann Martin, his wife, is also a bell ringer as well as a professor at St. John's College in Annapolis.

The couple met through an article she wrote in Ringers World, the weekly newspaper for bell ringers published in England. The article described her experiences as part of the first group of bell ringers trained at Washington Cathedral after it installed change bells in 1964.

"It seemed weird that this very English thing was catching on in America, and I wrote to her," Edward Martin said. "When she came over to Oxford in 1968, I started seeing her." The couple were married at the cathedral in 1971 -- with a quarter peal about 20 minutes long played in their honor after the ceremony.

Kollar and her husband William said they met in the cathedral bell tower.

Bell ringing "is an intense, time-consuming experience," William Kollar said. "The ones with ringing spouses may enjoy it more."

To become proficient takes two to three years. The society's 30 or so active members practice two evenings a week and every Sunday morning when they ring a quarter peal after the cathedral service. Their next scheduled full peal is on Labor Day.

Although most of the 20 towers with change bells in the United States are in Episcopal churches, many of the bell ringers themselves are not Episcopalians and are not particularly religious, King said. Most are mathematicians, computer experts and engineers, although the Washington society includes six lawyers, a stone carver and the business manager of the National Cathedral School for girls. They range in age from 20 to 64.

"You get people together who normally would never come together," Edward Martin said.

After a peal, they stay together for a while. Yesterday afternoon, the group had a picnic on the cathedral grounds with a keg of Bass ale. "That's a great British tradition too," King said.