Right Royal Ding Dong
Officials want all of our 38,000 church bells to ring for the King’s coronation. But a campanology crisis has left us short of ringers. Here, JANE FRYER tries her hand and appeals for everyone to give it a go
Uplifting: lifti J Jane Fryer and, above, one of the bells at Southwark Cathedral
THE ringing chamber in Southwark Cathedral — 130‑odd steps up a spiral stone staircase, along an impossibly narrow walkway, and through a door barely wide enough for a fully‑grown man — is a vaulted, whitewashed, wood‑panelled marvel.
Inside, I find electric fans, giant vats of drinking water, bottles of liquid chalk (to improve grip) and at least 15 bell‑ringers, s, of all ages — all raring to pull on their r sallies and ring away.
Hang on a minute — 15? Isn’t there a national bell‑ringer shortage — a crisis in campanology? Haven’t we been hearing g in recent weeks how the wonderful Ring g for the King campaign — to have every y church bell, all 38,000 of them, ringing g across the land in a glorious cacophony y of sound to mark the May 6 coronation of Charles III — has hit the buffers, due to o lack of recruits? And that, as a result, up p to 8,000 dusty bells will stay silent.
Well maybe this is true in some areas s but, happily, there’s no shortage here at t Southwark Cathedral in London.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more e vibrant, multi‑generational, dynamic and d — yes, now I look closer — impressively y muscular crew. Or, for that matter, a more e wonderfully uplifting sound!
Fresh from work, university lectures or r the pub — the ‘pre‑practice pint’ is s almost as popular as the ‘post‑practice e pint’ — they all dump their rucksacks s and cycling jackets, strip off their woollies s (it’s hot work) and grab their ropes.
But before they start ringing, a stern n safety warning: this can be a dangerous s business. The bigger bells here weigh h more than two tonnes, and a loose rope e could easily noose a stray ankle and whip p you into the air like a rag doll.
‘Both feet on the floor at all times, s, please’ is the bell‑ringer’s mantra.
CALMLY, in a very particular r order, they must be rung g smoothly and in sync with each other, and never, ever, by a total amateur like me — who, ideally, y, should have at least 15 hours of one‑onone na training before being let loose on a decent‑sized bell.
So, while I am allowed to ‘help’ toll the D‑bell (which weighs over a tonne and was cast in 1834) with Tom, 38, also hanging onto the rope for dear life, they were never going to let me actually ring it.
For the uninitiated, tolling — slowly producing a repeated sound from an already hanging bell at a measured pace — is different to ringing, hoisting an inverted bell off its plinth and causing it to ring in a flurry as it swings down and, if not handled properly, takes out everything in the belfry in its way.
There’s also a bell‑ringing glossary to swallow. Instead of tunes, they play ‘methods’ — patterns of notes which, on paper, resemble emble a print‑out from an excitable heart‑rate monitor.
Each section of practice, called a ‘ touch’, is led by a different conductor and, collectively, the ringers are called the ‘ band’, all under the authority of the ‘tower captain’. Today’s captain is a youthful chap called Luke, who started during the big ringing push for the Millennium and became hooked.
Bell towers, meanwhile, are referred to by the number of bells — so Southwark is a ‘12 bell’. Many local churches are just six. St Martin in Birmingham’s Bull Ring is at the top with a staggering 16.
Oh yes, and actual tunes are impossible. ‘you can’t have repeats of the same note, because you can’t hurry up a two‑tonne bell,’ explains Tom, who has been ringing since he was 11.
So far, the campaign has received a disappointing number of enquiries through its official site, which must be giving organisers the heebie‑jeebies — though they’re hoping new recruits are getting involved independently through their local churches.
But the worry is that, while in Central London this practice is rammed with a cross‑section of ringers ranging from their mid‑20s to late 70s, the belfries in rural areas are increasingly falling silent. Bell‑ringers have faced some serious challenges over recent years. Many tower rooms were closed for two years during the pandemic. They are, after all, often claustrophobically enclosed spaces in which ringers do an awful lot of huffing and puffing.
Even when many first reopened, every other bell was lopped out to comply with social distancing — playing merry hell with the methods. As a result, a lot of older ringers stayed firmly away.
Which is a crying shame, because while the various terminology is a bit of a mouthful, and the tower steps are often rather steep, bellringing is surprisingly good for the soul — as I discover the moment I start pulling on my sally and, after a few very hard tugs, hear a good solid D ring out across London.
It is joyful, communal and surprisingly good exercise — this lot leap up the tower steps like gazelles. It also uses your brain, aids balance and improves coordination. But most of all, it is social. Very, very social.
Cathryn Hunt joined her local ringers in Enfield back in 2019, after she dropped her 14‑year‑old son off at her local church as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award training and was persuaded to have a go. ‘I became hooked,’ she says. ‘ Because of the people. Everyone I’ve met in the bellringing ri community is wonderful.’
Four years on, her son is also ringing ri at Nottingham University, while w she and her daughter still ring ri locally.
Fraser Storie, Stor 15, from Croydon, sttarted started when he was ten. ‘I am the only nly ringer at a my school, but there are a lot of young y ringers around,’ hhe says. ‘I film fi our practices and put them on youTube and Twitter. eer. For the most m part, I get a very ggood reaction reactio among my pals.’
HERE,in the tower room, meanwhile, Michael Uphill, 75, former senior principal pal ringer at Westminster Abbey, eulogises ulogises about ab the bell‑ringing community. ommunity ‘ It’s glorious, just glorious! g The Th sound! The people!’ he says, perched per next to me on one of the wooden wo resting benches. ‘I’ve made so many friends.’
Sadly, though, thou he does seem to be one of the th few band members at Southwark Southwa who hasn’t met a partner through thro ringing.
‘At least half h of us have!’ says Rachel Prior, Prior a civil servant, who’s been ringing since she was 13 and is marrying fellow ringer, Robert, in August. Another couple — whose eyes met over their sallies — are marrying marry in July.
Sheila and Jeremy Cheeseman met through bell‑ringing at Southampton ampton University Uni 50 years ago, and have been be ringing together and separately separate ever since.
Jeremy started sta on handbells and moved to bel bell‑ringing when he was 16. Sheila, 71, 7 has been ringing since 1964, ever e since pulling her first sally at a church in Worsley, Manchester. Manchester ‘I’ve rung in more than 4,500 churches,’ ch she tells me. ‘I’m very keen. kee We’ve done everything thing in Greater Gre London, virtually all of Kent, Ken and Surrey and Sussex,’ adds Jeremy.
Their joint favourite is a ten‑bell tower in Abergavenny: ‘ It’s all about the sound — it has such a lovely ring — and the way they’re hung,’ they say.
Michael Uphill, meanwhile, prefers, what he calls the ‘old growlers . . . nice, old‑fashioned bells, not particularly in tune and with harmonics all over the place — Pershore Abbey [in Worcestershire] has a lovely set.’
There is a wider bell‑ringing world out there. Most people I talk to are enthusiastic subscribers