My goodness, is that the time? Almost the end of November and not a child in the house washed, as dear old Terry Wogan used to say. It will be Christmas before we know it, and another year gone. And I haven’t even begun to untangle the Christmas tree lights, let alone thought about mince pies or turkey.
Up in the tower, of course, we have other things to think of than food or drink. Well, some of the time, anyway – we’re as interested as the next person in festive cheer. But with all the events of autumn (October – the outing and Deanery Day; November – Armistice Day) now past, it’s time to turn our attention to Christmas ringing.
Ringing the bells at Christmas is always particularly joyous. Bells have such a close association with the season and are mentioned in so many carols and songs. Who doesn’t love singing ‘Ding, Dong, Merrily on High’? It’s guaranteed to make you feel happy. And as for ‘Jingle Bells’ (no, not exactly church bells, but they’re still bells….).
The church bells are likely to ring out at different times of day and night too, especially for the midnight service on Christmas Eve, which actually begins at 11.30pm so we need to be ringing by 11. Do we keep many children awake then? I haven’t heard of any complaints, and it’s nice to think of rosy-cheeked infants dropping into slumber to the sound of bells on Christmas Eve. Perhaps they think it’s Santa.
Where I learned to ring, we used to ring for the 7am Communion service on Christmas Day. That meant starting at 6.30 and I would set out soon after 6 (and I was a teenager, then!) to walk to the church. I used to love walking past houses with upstairs windows already lit and cries of ‘He’s been!’ drifting down to the accompaniment of those flat paper tubes that unfurled when you blew into the whistle at the end and delivered distinctly tuneless notes. I wonder what they were called. Always very popular in a Christmas stocking, anyway.
We would ring again for the 11am Matins, and that was our duty done, until New Year’s Eve when of course we rang for the turn of the year. We would ring half muffled for the passing of the old year, remove the muffles, then ring joyously open for the birth of the new year. Sometimes we would even ‘fire’ the bells, which can be very dramatic – it means sounding all the bells at the same instant, which is not as easy as it sounds, since each bell will take a very slightly different time between the rope being pulled and the clapper striking the bell, and the ringers need to be able to judge exactly when to pull their own rope. In some places this practice is frowned upon or simply forbidden, because it can be considered to be dangerous to the fabric of the tower itself. Towers typically sway a little (sometimes quite a lot) during ordinary ringing, and to have the total weight of a number of bells in motion at the same moment could cause a serious disruption.
In that particular village, there was a large oak tree and on New Year’s Eve the villagers would gather round it, holding hands and waiting for the tenor to toll out the twelve notes of midnight, at which point they would dance round the tree, probably singing some ancient folk song. I never knew what it was because I am not sure we ringers even knew that this went on, or we might have warned them the year we decided for some reason not to ring, and they wouldn’t have been so disappointed…
The great New Year of ringing in recent times was, of course, the Millennium. Because of the days on which the date fell, and because we also had two Sundays and a wedding to ring for as well, plus a request from on high (The Archbishop of Canterbury, I think it was) to ring at certain specified times on January 1, we found ourselves, if I remember correctly, in the tower for nine out of the ten days between Christmas Eve and January 2. Sometimes, even ringing can begin to seem a little too much.
No doubt you will hear the bells at several points over Christmas and New Year. Think of their sound as a message of goodwill sent from the bellringers to all who hear them, and may you all enjoy a happy Christmas and New Year.
October is always a busy month for us bellringers. I think this is something to do with Tavistock and its environs being (traditionally) a largely farming area. That may be changing as the town grows – hey, maybe there will be some ringers amongst the occupants of all those new houses! – but we still have a livestock market and Goosey Fair, and we can still see green fields and moorland from the town’s main streets. But being a farming area means that in autumn the harvest is safely gathered in (I love that hymn) and farmers can lift up their heads, take a breath – and go ringing.
The Tavistock ringers do still number farmers amongst the band and that is one of the reasons why we generally have our annual outing at this time of year. It used to be in June, which is a lovely time to go jaunting round the countryside, but the big farming and county shows all seem to take place then, with a few more throughout July and August, and with our tower captain, George, being a world-class competitive sheep shearer (it’s amazing what the human race can find to compete about) it also tends to be a busy time for removing woolly jumpers. So autumn it has to be.
It’s not just outings, either. October is the time for the Devonshire Guild of Bellringers to compete to see which branch can produce the best short piece of ringing. (I told you human beings will compete about pretty well anything.) This year, the competition took place in Plymouth, with six-bell teams ringing in the morning of October 20 at St Budeaux and Stoke Damerel, and eight-bell teams in the afternoon at Emmanuel. Ringers came from all over the county to take part in this and we were proud of the team from Sampford Spiney, who did well in the six-bell, and just a little chuffed with our own performance in the eight-bell, with seven out of the eight ringers to represent the South West branch coming from Tavistock. (We came third, only a whisker behind the team who came second, and the judges commended the quality of the ringing throughout.)
That’s what competitions are all about – the quality of the ringing. We practise beforehand and we strive to produce good striking – melodious, rhythmic music, not too slow, not too fast, and with no clashes. The whole thing raises the standard of our day to day and Sunday service ringing, even though all the ringers in the home band might not have taken part in the competition. And there are no prizes – we might, if we come first, return home with a cup or trophy, but unless we win we will have no more than a certificate to put up on the wall of the ringing chamber. That’s all we need.
In earlier times, there were money prizes or, as in the old song, such desirable items as ‘a belt and a hat laced with gold’. Probably kegs of beer or cider featured too. But that was deemed unsuitable, and I’m not sure what husky farming ringers would do with a hat laced with gold anyway. Not exactly what you’d wear for doing the milking.
On the last Saturday in October we have what for some of us is one the highlights of the year – the Tavistock Deanery Ringing Festival, fondly known as ‘Deanery Day’. On this day, every tower in the Deanery that possesses ringable bells is asked to open its doors to teams from all the churches to go and ring, at times of their own choosing, with no need to ask permission. We travel round in our little groups, some starting as early as 10am, and finally convene at a host tower for a short service and hearty tea. It’s a chance to experience different bells, enjoy the local countryside at its most colourful, and meet together to chew over the events of the past year (as well as those sausage rolls and jam and cream scones that inevitably appear with the mounds of pasties, sandwiches and cakes that form all ringers’ teas).
For a long time, we have wondered just when this festival began, but after reading about this in Tavy Links and Moorland Links, local historian Peter Hamilton-Legge took the trouble to do some research (thank you, Peter) and discovered, in the Cornish and Devon Post of November 7, 1903, a report of the very first one, held at Milton Abbot – on a Wednesday, for some reason. If only we had known, back in 2003, we could have celebrated its centenary.
As it happens, we went to Milton Abbot last year. This year, the Festival service and tea will be hosted by Lifton. But there will be ringing all over the Deanery, so if you happen to be in one of the villages where they have bells, listen out.
And, even more importantly, there will also be a lot of bellringing on Armistice Day, which this year falls, fortuitously, on Remembrance Sunday. As always, in memory of those who died during all the wars since 1914, we shall ring the bells of Tavistock in solemn half-muffled mode for the morning service and again after the service by the War Memorial. The muffles will then be removed to ring, together with all that can possibly be rung all over Europe, at 12.30, in celebration of peace. This is when our new ringers, who came forward in February during our special Ringing Remembers drive to recruit a new ringer for each of the 1400 lost during the First World War, will be invited to ring too. A very special occasion.
And then, starting at 2.30pm, the more stalwart and experienced members of our team will attempt a full peal of one of the oldest of all the ringing ‘methods’ – Grandsire Caters – which will comprise over 5000 different changes and last for just over three hours.
I say ‘attempt’ because a full peal can never be considered a fait accompli. It can go wrong in the very last few minutes and have to be aborted. To stand for over three hours, ringing the same bell without pause and, at the same time, concentrate on the mathematical formula and patterns which produce the music, is no mean feat. So please join me in wishing the band the very best of luck, and come to listen to and enjoy the ringing, which will celebrate the 700th anniversary of St Eustachius’ church as well as commemorate the cessation of hostilities in the First World War.
Oh, and just in case you are still wondering about that outing… instead of making it a major day out, as we often have in the past, we decided to keep it fairly local and visited Noss Mayo, Newton Ferrers, Plympton, Plymstock and Shaugh Prior. Back home in time for a quick cup of tea and wash and brush-up, and then to the Peter Tavy Inn for a fine, relaxing dinner.
In the busy life of a bellringing team, it’s good to relax and just enjoy each other’s company.
I have been thinking recently about a question that many churchgoers have asked for years past and in almost every parish where there are church bells. No, not ‘How long is the preacher going to go on for this Sunday?’ but ‘Why don’t more bellringers come to Church?’
Before going any further, I must say that we have not been subjected, in Tavistock, to any censure such as happens occasionally in other parishes. We have all heard of clergymen who have an ongoing feud with their ringers, who have even locked the doors to the ringing chamber and forbidden them entry. None of that has happened here or seems likely to happen. We feel valued and appreciated, and fortunate to be ringing such fine bells in such a handsome church.
But the question does get asked, and quite reasonably so. It’s been the same ever since I learned to ring, a lifetime ago. There are always some who regularly attend services, usually sitting in the back row either because that’s all that’s left by the time they get down the stairs or because they understandably don’t want to parade up the aisle halfway through the first hymn; there are some who go occasionally; and there are some who almost never go. I say ‘almost’ because even they will usually attend at Christmas or for some other special occasion, and because we often hold our own services – at Guild or Society meetings, at our own Deanery Day or at the wonderful annual Carol Service held usually at either Exeter Cathedral or Buckfast Abbey. And of course we will turn out in full for one of ‘our own’ – a ringer’s wedding or, more sadly, a funeral. And we will ring the bells for those too.
That’s where the reason lies – we ring the bells. And although there is no reason why we can’t ring the bells and attend the service too, I think we must all accept the fact that bellringing is not simply a religious activity. It is a cultural one as well and, as such, an important part of our English heritage.
I think I have said before that bellringing as practised in these islands and in parts of the world where, generally, the English have taken it, is a peculiarly English art. Yes, you will find bells and bellringing in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and thank goodness for them, but the concept of hanging the bell on a wheel so that it may be swung in a circle, giving the ringer full control of the moment at which it will strike its note, originated in England, where there are still more bells than anywhere else. And so did the idea of ringing a number of bells to a pattern or ‘method’ to produce the flowing music we enjoy today.
Still, we are very happy to share this concept with the rest of the United Kingdom and indeed the rest of the world. The more towers housing the more bells, the better. But… it does mean that we need more ringers. And there, as Hamlet would have observed, is the rub.
There are fewer ringers now, I suspect, than at any time in the history of campanology, apart from after the two World Wars of the twentieth century. And we’re getting older. In our own tower, where we have at present a strong band, all but a very few are over 50, a lot of us over 60 and some over 70. (In the next year we shall have two over 80!) Clearly, in the next 15 years or so we could be approaching a crisis. Just getting up the stairs may be a problem.
I would like to say at this point that we are all very much aware of the privilege we have in such freedom to play, without any outside supervision or interference, with the biggest musical instrument in the world. We can choose pretty much where, when and how we ring. Most towers have an annual outing – ours is coming up in a week or so – and jaunt about the countryside, ringing at different churches simply by asking permission (we do leave a donation at each one, of course). We ring for our own delight and pleasure and to celebrate our own special occasions. Every week in the ringers’ newspaper The Ringing World there are several pages of reports of peals and quarter peals being rung for birthdays, wedding anniversaries and other occasions that have no religious significance. We ring for village fairs, civic receptions and charitable events. We ring for solemn occasions too, such as the terrible event that has come to be known as 9/11. The significance of bells ranges beyond the church which houses them, and is not slight.
And for some months now there have been reports of peals and quarter peals rung in memory of those who died in the First World War. In the little church of Marystowe, not far from here, some very special ringing of traditional Devon Call Changes took place recently to remember local ringer Private Tom Eggins, killed at Flanders at the age of 19, while every year in Tavistock we ring for Remembrance Day and this year we will attempt a full peal, lasting three hours, to commemorate the end of the First World War. This ringing is not specifically religious, since those who fought, died and otherwise endured were of many persuasions.
We do, however, try to pay back some of the privilege we enjoy, by maintaining the bells and bell chamber ourselves, keeping the ringing chamber clean, tidy and welcoming, and buying from our own funds such items as new ropes. (Our own funds come mostly from fees paid for ringing at weddings etc.) It seems only fair and is in the long run easier. And we do consider Service ringing, on Sundays and other occasions, a prime commitment.
But it is not enough to maintain the bells. We still need to maintain the band…
Fortunately, we do have some new ringers who are enthusiastic, but it takes time to acquire ringing skills and can’t be rushed. And not everyone perseveres with it. So where do we get new ringers to carry on?
Years ago, choirboys were a handy source, their voices breaking at just the right age and already accustomed to regular commitment. (And before someone tells me I am being sexist, remember that choirgirls’ voices don’t break!) Young teenagers of both sexes learn quickly and can be useful ringers within a couple of years, but they tend to acquire other interests and then go away to university. Adult learners take longer to teach but are usually dependable and become valued and valuable members of the band. And we have been exceptionally fortunate in Tavistock in having a number of ready-made ringers of a high standard, who have moved into the area and become stalwart members of the band. (Some of them, I think, have actually moved here because of the bells!)
Obviously, many of these will be churchgoers. But we can’t always depend on this. If we want the bells to go on ringing we have to be prepared to widen our horizons and find recruits from other places.
And this is where the ‘cultural’ aspect comes in. Bellringing is an activity which can appeal to many people, from all walks of life and all beliefs. It is a satisfying physical exercise (if only more doctors knew this!) and it is mentally challenging. It’s a social activity, bringing immediate friendships, and not just locally – a ringer who goes on holiday where there are bells to be rung will be welcomed at once and, as we have seen, if you go to live in such an area the welcome will be doubled. It is, frankly, rather a shame that we have kept it to ourselves all this time.
That last comment is rather serious. Why have we kept it to ourselves? Why has it always been assumed that bellringers will also be churchgoers? In fact, why are bells – as in peals of bells, hung with wheels and long ropes – in churches at all? Is it because they were, in the first place, the only buildings with suitable towers? Those towers weren’t, as I understand it, originally built to house bells with long ropes. They might have had a bell or two hung to summon people to church, tell them the time or warn them of invaders, but they weren’t originally built to house a whole peal of bells. And they didn’t have such bells for quite a long time. (This is something I am a bit hazy on but intend to research further, so if you know more, please don’t hesitate to inform me!) Anyway, it’s certainly true that most, if not all, old churches would have been Roman Catholic and they rarely have bells hung as they are in Anglican churches.
There are a few peals of bells hung in secular towers, but only a few. Bellringing is in decline over the entire country and this really is a tragedy. Many churches have bells that are rarely or never rung. Recruiting new ringers from the congregation, as has been traditionally the way, just isn’t working any more. Many congregations are themselves ageing and declining – an uncomfortable truth but one that has to be faced. We are not going to recruit many new ringers from their number.
If we want to hear our church bells ringing out over town and country – and let’s never forget that everybody hears them, not just the churchgoers, and they signal the presence of an active community church – we have to open our tower doors to those who would enjoy it as a cultural activity. We have to look further afield for our new ringers and not make demands that may never be met – although there is always the chance that they may venture further into the church later on.
We need to stop asking ‘Why don’t the bellringers come to church’ and ask instead ‘How can we attract more people to bellringing?’ If we don’t, in less than half a lifetime the bellringers may not be there, and a unique part of our heritage will die.
Donna Baker (NB The opinions expressed in these articles are my own.)
Mention to many people that you are a bell ringer and nine times out of ten you will be asked, ‘Have you ever been pulled up on a rope?’
The short answer is usually ‘No’, because most of us haven’t. But it can happen, and many of us have seen it at one time or another. I’ve seen it twice, both times early in my ringing career, in the same tower and, as it happens, on the same bell. But that was pure coincidence. It wasn’t the bell’s fault!
To understand what happens, you need to know that a bell hung for ringing, as ours are, is attached to a headstock which is in turn attached to a large wheel. The rope, also attached to the headstock, is passed around the wheel, in a groove, and hangs down through however many floors there are between the bell chamber and the ringing chamber. When the rope is pulled, the bell swings in a complete circle and, when pulled again, back the other way.
It is easy to see that, if there were nothing to prevent it, the bell could, at the top of its swing, topple over and continue to swing in circles, dragging the rope up and around the wheel – and bringing the ringer with it. And because the bell is a pretty heavy piece of metal, it would all happen rather quickly.
A skilled ringer can control the bell so that this doesn’t happen. But it does mean that the bell cannot be ‘stood’ in the upright position, mouth upwards, to allow time for a short rest, for other ringers to have their turn or just to swap bells, which we do all the time. So a ‘stay’ is also attached – a length of wood (usually ash, which is quite strong but breaks more easily than, say, oak) which can hold the bell at rest and keep it reasonably safe. I say ‘reasonably’ because this is only ‘safe’ as far as ringers are concerned. A person unused to bells and their ways, taking hold of the rope and maybe giving a tentative tug, could easily pull the bell off balance and set the whole thing off, also allowing the rope to flail around the tower like a mad snake. Which is why you may sometimes see a notice attached to a tower door or to one of the ropes themselves, saying ‘Danger. Bells Are Up’ or some such phrase. And it does mean ‘danger’. Bells are big animals and not to be trifled with. (The bells are safe if they are ‘down’, with mouths facing downwards, as they are not then able to swing independently.)
So how does it happen that a ringer might be pulled up with the rope? Well, what usually happens is that the ringer has over-pulled so that the bell bumps the wooden stay hard against the device which normally holds it in position, and breaks it. With no stay to prevent it, the bells goes over again, the rope is wound swiftly round and round the wheel, and up goes the hapless ringer – usually to shouts of ‘Let go!’ from other ringers, because you don’t want to be dropping from the height of most ringing chambers. The twice that I have seen this happen, it was so quick that the ringer seemed momentarily elongated before letting go, although neither dropped more than a few feet. And neither, you will be glad to hear, was hurt. Just a bit shaken.
The obvious question then is, ‘Why not make the stay of stronger wood? Or even metal?’ Well, oddly enough, it’s because we actually want it to break (although not too easily). If it did not, the force of the bell going over in this way would cause much greater damage to the headstock, the wheel and possibly the bell itself. (Not to mention the ringer.) It’s a safety mechanism. And, quite honestly, with good teaching and sensible ringing, it very rarely happens. Moreover, even when it does, the dramatic scene I have described, is even rarer. People don’t always get dragged up. As I say, I have seen it only twice in almost 70 years of ringing, and both times were in the first three or four years.
Bells, as I say, are not to be trifled with. Treat them too casually and they will take offence and, as they are generally bigger, stronger and heavier than we are, if they get really cross they will probably win the argument. The ‘funny’ pictures, usually involving monks on Christmas cards, of ringers being hauled up to the church roof, do have a basis in fact, and those notices saying ‘Danger’ must be taken seriously. Even if there is no notice, unless you know what you are doing in a ringing chamber, you should never touch the ropes – just in case. But really, that’s no more than commonsense. Most of us wouldn’t get into the driving seat of a strange vehicle – a bus, say, or a tractor – and start it up either. (Well, I assume we wouldn’t … you may know differently!)
Having said all that, bells are really friendly beings which enjoy making music, and so are their ringers. They all welcome visitors to their tower rooms and they enjoy helping new ringers to learn to handle the ropes safely, without ever being pulled up towards the ceiling. There is no age, sex or any other kind of discrimination in a ringing chamber and the bells wouldn’t care anyway. They just want to make joyous sounds.
What better aim in life!
Summer has come, and with it that seasonal question that we all ask each other at this time of year – no, not whether we put the jam or the cream on first (if I never hear that question asked again, it will be too soon) but, in our little eyrie halfway up the tower, whether there is a wedding to ring for on the coming Saturday and, if so, can we muster enough ringers?
It’s not always a foregone conclusion that we can, you see. Especially in summer, when some of us may be away on holiday or already booked to ring for a wedding at another church – remember how I told you, last time, how several of us ring at other churches in the diocese as well as here in Tavistock. Last Saturday, for instance, we had weddings at St Eustachius’, Lamerton and Mary Tavy, all at much the same time. Although Lamerton has its own team, one of our regular ringers comes from there, and Mary Tavy doesn’t have a regular team at all, so relies on outside help. Not only that, they like to have the bells both before and after the wedding, so it means quite a long stint and gives little chance of dashing into Tavistock to help out.
We always try to provide the full complement of ringers for our ten bells but sometimes have to settle for eight – still a fine sounding peal, since these are the original eight which were heard for years before we added the two extra for the Millennium. But as far as I am aware, we have never (yet!) rung less than that for a wedding. We may have to search other towers for help, but there’s usually someone, somewhere, who will come and lend a hand.
It’s important to ring for weddings. The wedding day is a very special event and everyone wants theirs to be perfect. The sound of bells, which always seems to me to be especially joyous when ringing out as the newly wed bride and groom leave the church, is the decorative icing on the more solid cake of the service itself. The bride and groom probably hardly notice it themselves, caught up in the excitement and happiness of the day, but they’ll hear it later on the DVD that seems to be part of every wedding now and will probably go out to friends and relatives all over the world. And people in the town, who still pause to watch a wedding party, hear the bells too. The sound draws their attention as they shop, wander in the square or drift in and out of the market. ‘Why are the bells ringing? It must be a wedding…’ And for most people – even in these cynical times – the thought brings a smile and a lift of the heart.
Up in the tower, although we see little of the wedding itself, we are aware of this. We arrive half an hour after the wedding begins (or is due to begin – they don’t always start on time, you know) and wait, more or less patiently, for the signal that the service is over and we can make our own contribution. (The signal is the switching off and on of the light on the spiral staircase; we’re right up there with modern technology.) We then ring twice, for about fifteen minutes each time, and finally leave the church, often to appear as mysterious figures at the back of whatever photograph is being taken at the time. (We are the ones not dressed in wedding finery and possibly carrying shopping bags, in case you’ve ever wondered.)
That’s if it all goes well. All ringers have stories of brides who turned up three quarters of an hour late, whose fathers lost the car keys before leaving the house, whose veil got tea spilt on it at the last moment, whose taxi just never turned up at all. There are probably some who even went to the wrong church. Thankfully, I have never myself gone to ring at a wedding which was cancelled but I expect it’s happened. And I’ve never heard anyone object to a wedding, at that moment in the service when the opportunity is announced. (Apparently, if that happens, the vicar has to stop the service and call the police because an offence has been committed, so don’t try it, will you, even in ‘fun’. It’s no joke!)
But most weddings do go well, by and large, and any little hitches or upsets usually turn into laughter later on. And we, safely shut away from it all up in the tower, don’t know much about that anyway. We just wait for the light to flash, take our positions with ropes in hand, and do what we do best – sound the news of a wedding over the whole town.
It is one of the most pleasurable of our activities. Especially if the bride is on time!