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!