The Call of Bells
For centuries the bells have called
through countless ringers’ hands
To come to worship, prayer and song
the people of these lands
The bells fell silent one by one
as ringers went to war
They’d heard the call to go to fight
the war to end all wars
Four years on the guns fell still
and most of them returned
Their families embraced them back
they went to join their bands
The broken bones that many had
would mend in time they hoped
But those whose limbs were lost in war
would never hold a rope
And men with shell-shock could not bear
to hear the bells again
The sound brought back the crash of shells
the cries of dying men
Now fourteen hundred ringers lie
beneath a distant sky
Though silent, still we hear their call
their spirits ring on high
They call to us to ring the bells
to learn the ancient art
So England evermore shall hear
the nations beating heart
I am enjoying learning the ropes as a new ringer. Our trainer, Debbie, takes us to other towers to try different bells and on a beautiful Saturday in August she took us on a magical mystery tour of 5 towers in Sussex. We were joined by experienced and novice ringers from other local towers, so in our party, over the day, more than 30 ringers bounced around the beautiful Sussex back country roads to ring.
All the towers a different, and whilst most were changed by the Victorians during the big national church building programme towards the end of the 19th Century, many towers are still accessed through doorways and staircases built for Saxons of around 5 feet 4 inches. Ringing chambers are similarly often restricted in size, and in our first in Uckfield the door had to be locked when ringing started as one bell rope was in the entrance threshold.
The church architecture is subtle in variation, some traditional Sussex flint build, some using Sussex Wealden sandstone whilst occasionally the two are mixed. Their layout also reflects times of smaller communities than now on our overcrowded island, with the village school abutting the churchyard walls and often alms houses alongside too. Noticeably the size of the Rectory showed how the church ‘living’ for the officiating priest was often quite a way above that of most of his flock.
Ringing needs a degree of single minded focus, almost making it a ‘mindfulness’ activity. Hands must be in the right place on the rope changing between the hand stroke and the back stroke with the rotation of the bell. How hard to pull to get in the right position, to keep in the right place with the other ringers and to keep the bell in the right position each time takes a lot of practice, and obviously, after just less than four months, still haven’t manged to pull all these parts together consistently well. It is exhilarating when it comes right and that is usually my undoing as I shift my focus slightly and then find I don’t pull quite right and the bells starts to dictate what is going on. I am learning to right this process but it’s testing me. (One ringer commented she was interested to see how correcting it was done, as she had never had to do it, …hmmm!)
I was very much the novice in the party, watching and learning, but I was given the opportunity to ring in ‘rounds’ in every church, and definitely struggled that day. Debbie is my tutor and minder, and when I ring she is the safety, standing in front of me ready to step in and take control if things go wrong. Her voice is the only one I hear when ringing, and she is an excellent tutor.
The pub lunch was good for getting to know one another and the single beer helped hydrate after the sauna like conditions of some of the tower ringing rooms. The social element should have helped me relax in my ringing as I tend to try too hard. Sometimes I hear my dads voice in my head saying, “don’t try so hard, son”, often Debbie’s voice saying ‘relax’ or ‘take a breath’. Alas it was not to be, and the turn at ringing in Waldron tower was my undoing that day.
Geoff, who was ringing the tenor opposite, said that he saw I lost control of the rope and was suddenly lifted by it. I lost control on the hand stroke and pulled on the backstroke to try to get back control, then recognised that something was going wrong. I was lifted a couple of feet off the floor. As I rose at the end of the rope I obeyed Debbie’s shouted “let go”, a command drummed into new ringers as one that must be immediately obeyed. Bless Debbie’s presence of mind otherwise I might have tried to hang on with more serious consequence. I dropped safely to the floor. I have an image in my mind of seeing the rope guide and clamp coming down to hit me on my right arm, bruising and grazing it. The clamp rebounded to hit Debbie on her foot near her ankle.
It was a chance in a hundred. Part of the framework holding the bell, the slider which stopped the stay to the bell, had split. The split was seen to be old and stained with oil and dirt, my pulling had completed the break and the sudden whip this imparted to the rope had broken the iron bracket and ring under the stress, both detaching and falling into the ringing chamber as I rose to meet them. Another ringer said to take this in my stride, as a ‘right of passage’. Yeah, I thought, back passage…
No bad after effects thanks in part to the amazing preparedness on a by-stander, who produced an ice-pack from a commodious handbag, and a tube of arnica. Liberally applied both to my biceps leaving me regrettably with a red white and blue bruise stripe across my arm like a French tricolour – adding insult to injury…it could have been an English or Welsh bruise dammit!
The broken part was removed from the framework. It could not have been seen on a visual inspection, but I was assured it could have gone at any time. Not my fault it seems. I rang in the next tower and no-one ran away although I was less controlled, shaken but not stirred, probably less certain of what was going to happen when I pulled on the ‘sally’ again.
I’m told I’ll be allowed in the bell tower on next practice anyway. Nobody is taking me away, and I remain dying to take part along with the other 1400 newly recruited ringers now learning, in our act of in #Ringing for Remembrance.