Ding Dong Mer­rily On High

This England - - News - Re­becca Crow­ley

The sound of church bells is surely one of Eng­land’s sig­na­ture tunes, in few other places are they rung so reg­u­larly or com­pe­tently. If the par­ish church is at the cen­tre of vil­lage life, a peal of bells pro­claims this, lift­ing the heart with its joy­ous voice.

Sun­day tea in the gar­den ac­com­pa­nied by dis­tant bells an­nounc­ing Even­song is a happy child­hood mem­ory. Later in life, liv­ing close to the church, Fri­day night prac­tice with its false starts and pauses en­cour­aged me to in­ves­ti­gate the ringers be­hind the bells.

Fred, the Tower Cap­tain, was a tall gan­gly vil­lager of nearly 70. New­com­ers were wel­comed and were given half an hour to our­selves be­fore prac­tice proper be­gan. Although poorly ed­u­cated and highly parochial, Fred knew his stuff. He was strict, thor­ough, and, most im­por­tant of all, safety con­scious. Ring­ing is po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous; I have seen more than one whiplash in­jury and watched the rope snake neatly round a ringer’s neck ready to hang her six feet high if Fred hadn’t in­ter­vened.

The first ordeal was the 52 steps to the tower; later we climbed a fur­ther 50 to the bells them­selves. They were dark and men­ac­ing, cob­webbed and en­crusted with bird drop­pings. The tower was cosier: six coloured ropes called “sal­lies”, a square of car­pet on the floor, two pews to sit on and a fan heater that we crouched round in win­ter, the at­mos­phere rem­i­nis­cent of musty school­rooms. I en­joyed the rhythm, pulling hard down at hand-stroke, stretch­ing up at back-stroke, then down again just be­hind the bell in front. We were not yet mak­ing mu­sic, we were only tolling, but it was a start.

Other mem­bers of the band were a mot­ley crew as all bell­ringers are. Edgar was a rather weedy GPO engi­neer, round-shoul­dered, bot­tle-end glasses, who car­ried his money in a purse. Alan, lanky and keen, at 25 he couldn’t re­sist show­ing off; as a car me­chanic his hands were en­crusted with grease and he was en­cour­aged to stick to one bell. Then there was Caro­line, de­vout, po-faced but an ex­cel­lent ringer. And fi­nally there was Richard, bearded and scruffy a mid­dle-aged aca­demic at­tend­ing un­der duress to make up the num­bers. In the months to come the comic side of vil­lage ring­ing was to hit me hard and Richard was the only one whose eye I could catch to share the joke.

I dili­gently at­tended prac­tice nights, learn­ing to “set the bell”, raise and lower in peal and ring rounds — six of us fol­low­ing one an­other. Learn­ers came and went but I per­se­vered and after six months could ring “plain hunt”, the wa­ter­shed of ring­ing. No longer a novice, I could now make mu­sic with the rest of the band. Walk­ing home down the dark coun­try lane with a full moon ahead and the last bells ring­ing out be­hind me, I felt elated.

In win­ter the tower was dim and draughty, in sum­mer I sat on the high win­dow ledge and gazed through nar­row case­ments at the dis­tant view. We rang for wed­dings, feel­ing im­por­tant and nec­es­sary, stand­ing, arms poised on the sal­lies as Fred crouched down, peering through a hole in the floor.

“Here they come! They’re in the porch! Quick!”

He leapt up, grasped his rope, and we fol­lowed in quick suc­ces­sion, pulling heartily, broad­cast­ing the happy oc­ca­sion to the vil­lage. Later we would have a bird’s-eye view of the wed­ding party in the church­yard: the ra­di­ant bride, the re­lieved groom, the smug brides­maids. Later the vicar re­warded us with £2 each.

Un­der the freema­sonry of cam­panol­ogy ev­ery­one is wel­comed at any tower and of­fered the chance of ring­ing the method of their choice. Very of­ten we were vis­ited by groups of young ringers who dom­i­nated the tower and rang com­pli­cated meth­ods. Some­times a silent, surly fig­ure would shuf­fle in — al­ways known to Fred who would re­gale us with an anec­dote after the stranger left. Th­ese were chiefly re­tired farm labour­ers, dark mono­syl­labic men who lived in out­ly­ing districts.

I was to find bell­ring­ing both en­thralling and de­mand­ing: ev­ery­one took it very se­ri­ously and I was en­cour­aged to learn new meth­ods. Not be­ing math­e­mat­i­cally minded I found th­ese an up­hill strug­gle, although some of the names, Sur­fleet, Sur­prise, Grand­sire and Lit­tle Court were evoca­tive and ap­peal­ing. I bought a hand­book, read the Ring­ing World mag­a­zine and learnt to “fol­low the blue line”, the chore­og­ra­phy of bell ring­ing. We vis­ited other tow­ers and I rang on eight and 10 bells, climbed pre­car­i­ous tower steps, wrig­gled through trap­doors and once even broke a “stay” (the de­vice that keeps the bell in an up­right po­si­tion be­tween ring­ing), leav­ing me dan­gling help­lessly two feet above the ground. This rare and much-frowned upon event was fol­lowed a few mo­ments later by my part­ner break­ing his stay, also leav­ing him dan­gling above the ground. We weren’t in­vited there again!

Other than Fri­day nights and Sun­day Even­song we also rang for fes­ti­vals. On Re­mem­brance Day the clap­pers were cov­ered with leather pads and we rang half-muf­fled. Then, at hand-stroke, the bell gave a deep melodic chime fol­lowed by a light nor­mal tone which gave an en­chant­ing well-like res­o­nance, not at all the som­bre note it was meant to be. It was a greater plea­sure to lis­ten than to ring.

At Christ­mas we rang morn­ing, noon and night — cheer­ful gath­er­ings full of true Christ­mas spirit. “Ring Out Wild Bells” seemed to be echoed through­out the vil­lage as we pulled the first hand­stroke on Christ­mas morn­ing dressed in our fes­tive best. Noth­ing com­pli­cated to­day, just good strong rhyth­mi­cal rounds.

New Year’s Eve was even more pop­u­lar when hos­pi­tal­ity was ex­tended to the whole vil­lage. There was the in­evitable count­down to mid­night, watches syn­chro­nised to Big Ben broad­cast­ing over the vicar’s ra­dio as a sturdy ringer tolled the tre­ble bell sig­ni­fy­ing the dy­ing year. With sec­onds to go we “caught hold” and at the first stroke of mid­night pulled off into rounds.

Vil­lagers throng­ing the nave clinked glasses and kissed each other, mouths full of mince pies. Twin Christ­mas trees ei­ther side of the al­tar glowed and sparkled in the can­dlelit church — it was a mag­i­cal mo­ment. As soon as de­cently pos­si­ble I es­caped to the church­yard, pre­fer­ring to lis­ten to the ring­ing and gaze down on the sleepy vil­lage won­der­ing what prom­ise the New Year held.

In Jan­uary post-christ­mas gloom was lifted by the an­nual out­ing. Hus­bands and wives joined us at a nearby pub with other lo­cal bands. We took over the lounge bar and after the usual drinks and buf­fet food the en­ter­tain­ment be­gan.

Alan and Cather­ine opened the pro­ceed­ings with a few soul­ful folk songs on the gui­tar. Hav­ing got that out of the way Fred would stand up to give a recital of his tra­di­tional el­egy. With his long arms dan­gling, grin­ning and try­ing vainly to stop his false teeth from drop­ping, he took the floor and re­galed us with the year’s events in rhyme. Ev­ery­one was men­tioned and in­ci­dents long for­got­ten were res­ur­rected in verse. We were re­minded of the night the bell­ringers won at skit­tles, Roger’s ha­bit­ual late­ness and the mem­o­rable day the church clock stopped; mel­low with drink we laughed, clapped and blushed by turn.

An­other round of drinks her­alded the of­fer­ings of Edgar. Shy, shabby and re­tir­ing, he sur­prised us all with an orig­i­nal song com­plete with com­mu­nal cho­rus. We were into our stride now and, obliv­i­ous of other cus­tomers, joined in with gusto. Pink with a mix­ture of plea­sure and em­bar­rass­ment, Edgar con­ducted our sing­ing un­til we reached a cli­max and he bowed out cov­ered in con­fu­sion and com­pli­ments. Anna, a new­comer like me, re­galed us with a comic song, ac­com­pa­ny­ing her­self on piano. Di­rected at Fred, this brought great ac­claim and he, not know­ing whether he had been up­staged or flat­tered, shuf­fled his feet and tried to look gruff.

And so a full 12 months had elapsed since I first climbed the 52 steps to the bell­tower. As a fully fledged ringer, able to han­dle the bell, un­der­stand the jar­gon and ring a few meth­ods I felt an in­te­gral part of the fel­low­ship. The an­cient art of change ring­ing, no longer quite so es­o­teric but still re­tain­ing its mys­tique, had claimed my soul.

(con­tin­ued)

IAN GOODRICK/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

The bells in the tower of St. Mary’s Church at Rye in Sus­sex.

GE­OFF A. HOWARD/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Ring­ing the church bells at St. Mary’s, Twyford, Hamp­shire.

GE­ORGE MITCHELL

Right: Bell pulls in the church at Hunt­ing­field in Suf­folk.

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