Are you ready to ring the changes?
Does bellringing have an image problem? STEVEN RUSSELL meets two proponents who can't imagine life without Grandsire Triples and Tittums, whatever anyone else thinks.
Does bellringing have an image problem? STEVEN RUSSELL meets two proponents who can't imagine life without Grandsire Triples and Tittums, whatever anyone else thinks
“YOU'RE sitting there thinking 'I've got two real weirdo fanatics here',” grins Libby Laurence, who has already warned that her coffee might later trigger an outbreak of hyperactivity - the pub not offering the preferred no-caffeine variety.
Weird? Definitely not. Committed and passionate? Absolutely.
We're here to discuss bellringing. It's a boring pastime dominated by ageing and earnest Bible-bashers, right? Wrong, insist my companions for elevenses, who spend much of their free time ringing the bells of East Anglia.
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For a start, teenager Dan Smith gives the lie to misconceptions about the silver-haired brigade. And as for being a signed-up member of the C of E . . . well, Libby's dad was Jewish - something that put her on an unfortunate collision course with the church as a youngster.
Today, in her band of 15 or so ringers, there's probably one who is a regular church-goer.
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So, that's nailed most of the stereotypes, then.
Libby, 44, reckons most folk would be pleasantly surprised if they learned more about the art and had a go themselves. New blood would be warmly welcomed: the 1,200 to 1,500 ringers in Essex are outnumbered by 1,700 bells.
In her role as PR officer for The Essex Association of Change Ringers - formed in Writtle in 1879 - Libby was recently shadowed by a reporter from BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour programme. The journalist happily admitted knowing nothing about bellringing when she was met off the train at Witham, but by the end of the day was asking where in London she might herself get started.
“It's amazing how infectious it is,” argues Libby. “It's brilliant fun. For me, it's not just that it's a physical challenge or just a mental challenge; it's an everything challenge. It's like ski-ing: think about something else and you'll have an accident.”
Still not trendy, though, is it? Doubtless something to do with all those dusty, spidery and chilly-in-winter church towers.
Actually, not all towers are like that. There's one in Basildon that's made of glass; known as The Greenhouse and built about five years ago for £738,000. The bells are visible, but many ringers swear it sways and makes them feel like they're on a boat.
Perhaps bellringing needs a celebrity convert to sprinkle some glamour-dust: maybe the Arctic Monkeys or Girls Aloud could ring a Plain Bob Major . . .
Libby admits with a smile that the web site of the Central Council for Church Bell Ringers is getting somewhat desiccated. But that's not a true reflection of the state of things, she insists.
“We're not a dry bunch. That's the unfortunate thing. How do you get across that we're actually quite a fun group of people? We're normal. Definitely into a laugh; definitely into having a joke. And there is a huge number of young people.”
Dan, himself 17, confirms there are many teenagers involved, as well as children as young as 10.
He started ringing in 2003, on a course for young people, and is now pretty darned good, says Libby. Over time, though, the other youngsters drifted away.
Dan reckons it was through boredom, because they weren't ringing enough during those early stages to become hooked. He'd ring every day if he could - used to, in fact - but this summer's impending A-level exams have meant cutting down.
“When everybody else left and it was just me at Pebmarsh, they were all saying 'Oh, you're not cool.' But what is 'cool'?”
Dan whips out The Ringing World diary that he carries everywhere and, ignoring his colleague's good-natured teasing that it's actually The Anorak's Diary, shows a diagram of how to ring a Plain Bob Minor.
With its series of numbers, and lines snaking through it, it looks like one of those textbook representations of DNA.
As they say in the shampoo ads, here's the science bit: a round is a sequence in which the band rings a scale. A change involves altering the order in which the bells are rung, to create a different sequence.
Changes can be called out by the conductor - a style known as call-change ringing - or can follow a pre-ordained pattern, also known as a method. In method ringing, each member of the band must learn that method in order to know when his or her bell must sound.
Time for a sharp intake of breath: A quarter-peal, featuring 1,250 changes, would take about 45 minutes to ring. A peal has 5,000 changes.
I reckon it's very complicated; Dan concedes it's “fairly technical”.
Libby says: “It looks fairly complicated when you first look at it like this, and you're just getting used to pulling on a bit of string, then pulling on a bit of fur - well, it's wool, actually - but in fact it does come relatively easily.
“You've got all these ropes going up and down and they just look like a forest of ropes, and you're thinking 'How the hell am I supposed to know who I'm ringing after?'
“Then comes a big step - and it's literally like a mist clearing: you just 'see' the rope you need to follow. How do you know that's the rope you're supposed to pull after? It's just something your brain sorts out. Nobody can tell you how to sort it out; it just happens - and we call that ropesight.
“It's patterns. You don't have to have a mathematical brain to do it, but it so happens I do have a mathematical brain. Once you can see the patterns, it's relatively easy.” She ponders a second. “Well, it's not relatively simple, but you can understand it!
“It's a challenge, because you're using your eye, ear and brain co-ordination all at once. You can't think of anything else whilst you're doing it. If your mind drifts off - and mine does from time to time - that's it: you've fallen off what we call the blue line. You've fallen off the tune, which is in your head, and then you've let down everybody else in the band, 'cos the whole thing falls apart.
“If you've got ropesight, then you can go almost anywhere, because you can immediately see who's doing what and where they are going. It's no longer a forest of ropes; it becomes a map. Danny picked that up amazingly quickly, to the extent he can not only be ringing his own bell but telling four or five other people what they're doing. Starting young is definitely a good idea!”
Dan modestly says a lot of it is down to practice. He rings a lot of peals - that's three hours or more, standing still, thinking of nothing but bellringing - but wouldn't say he has a terribly mathematical outlook.
“It's the mental and physical challenge that drives me on. I enjoy ringing the heavy bells. The heaviest I've rung is 24 hundredweight, which is more than a ton.”
Dan's of enviably slight build. Libby says you don't have to be Superman to ring bells. “You have to have a technique; it's all in the pulling action and it's all in the anticipation. With the heavier bells, it's in what we call 'pulling them off' - when they're resting on a piece of wood called a stay. Once it's dropped off, you have to give it enough pull only to keep it going. So you're using the energy that's already in the bell.”
Everyone is different, of course, but Libby's rule of thumb is that it takes about 12 hours of practice from picking up the rope for the first time to being able to ring for services.
“The older you are, the longer it generally takes you, because of the hand-eye-ear co-ordination.”
Mind you, it's apparently excellent exercise for the old grey matter. “We had a 100-year-old recently who rang a quarter-peal to celebrate their birthday. Older ringers in their 80s and 90s are as sharp as a pin, and I'm sure it's because of the mental workout they are given bellringing.”
Libby, a business consultant, hails from Wales. “In my village we had a number of churches very close by, all of whom had bells. And I was aware of two things: I always wanted to ring bells, from the age of five, and I wanted to play the organ.
“As you can see from my stature” - pause for comic effect - “playing the organ is out: can't reach the pedals. But ringing bells . . . I was basically frightened about going into the church, because the church had rejected me when I asked at the age of eight, I think I was, to join the choir” - rejected because of her father's religion. “So I was hardly likely to say 'Can I come and ring the bells?'”
This hankering remained unrequited for decades - until just a few years ago, in fact. Libby had moved to Essex, working for Ford Motor Company and eventually making her home in the north of the county. One day, a manor house at Gestingthorpe threw open its doors to raise money for the church.
There was a display of beautifully-polished restored handbells. “There was a lady showing them off saw me looking and said 'Have a go.' I said 'No, I can ring handbells. I want to ring big bells; I want to ring church bells.' She said 'Across there on Thursday night.' Sure enough, on the Thursday night there were 15 adult learners starting in one go.”
There was no looking back.
Nowadays she tends to practise her ringing four nights during the week. On Saturday mornings you might find her helping out at an Essex Association of Change Ringers bellringing school for those trying to learn, and Sundays are spent dashing about the countryside, ringing at services.
Luckily, her husband's also an enthusiast: ringing about twice a week, along with services.
Libby is also heavily involved in tower maintenance.
“Although they are within the fabric of the church, and since the 18th Century the Church has had jurisdiction over them, the Church has a lot of calls on its funds. So if we need new ropes, if we need to rehang a bell - which costs about £10,000 - we actually raise the funds ourselves.”
She takes care of the maintenance of two Essex towers: Sible Hedingham and Wickham St Paul. “You get used to crawling around in very small spaces and a lot of pigeon poo, very high up.”
It seems the very process of ringing is highly addictive. Novices have to come to terms with the time delay between pulling the rope and hearing the strike. Then there are the bells; some date from the 15th Century and many have their own particular quirks.
“You have to learn the characteristics and get it to ding in the right place; you've got to remember the tune and who you're ringing after. Your eyes are working hard, because you've to look at what everyone else is doing. It's just a really wonderful challenge,” says Libby.
“I'm very competitive with myself - I'm very competitive with other people as well - but if I've managed to do a particularly difficult method today, tomorrow I'll want to do an even harder one!”
(blob) Anyone interested in finding out more about bellringing can contact Mary Bone, secretary of the Essex association, on 01279 726159 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
IT'S surprising to learn that bellringing and religion haven't always gone hand in hand.
Towers started off having nothing to do with churches, explains Libby Laurence, and they're still officially secular. There are signs of this separation to be seen today: where there is a specific ringers' door, for instance, that doesn't oblige the band to enter or leave the tower via the main church.
Historically, bells were rung for celebration or warning, or to get folk up in the morning - in the days before we all carried watches. Traditionally, ringers were paid in beer or hats, bizarrely. The bigger the tower, the richer the village is likely to have been. East Anglia's collection of bell towers is a reminder of the its past wealth, based on the wool trade and agriculture.
Ringing became known as a sport in the 16th Century and most of the young men in the district would do it - and then repair to the pub.
“If you go into Halstead, for example, or Clare, you will see a huge earthenware pot. It holds five gallons. Tiny little handle; God knows how you're supposed to drink from it. This would be touted round the town or the village and the ringers would be paid in alcoholic substances poured into this earthenware container, with a stopper, and then everyone would drink from it.
“So, yes, we are known historically as quite an unruly bunch. These days we're not quite so unruly. Our 'payment' for using the bells for our hobby is that we ring for services.”
Later this month, in common with enthusiasts across Britain, Essex ringers will be celebrating the Queen's 80th birthday the way they know best. “There was a quarter-peal done at Felsted for St David's Day, where they rang St David's Method - that's the tune - and they were all Davids who rang in it. Basically, any excuse for a ring!”