Ding Dong Merrily On High
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.
The bells in the tower of St. Mary’s Church at Rye in Sussex.
Ringing the church bells at St. Mary’s, Twyford, Hampshire.
Right: Bell pulls in the church at Huntingfield in Suffolk.