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Bell ringing – a thoroughly English tradition

By Amy Elliott

In a cosy alcove of St Peter’s Church in Hutton, East Yorkshire, a group of locals gathers every Monday evening from 7:30 to 9pm to perfect their bell ringing.

Bell ringing is an ancient art which has been practiced worldwide for centuries. In spite of this, and the fact that the toll of bells forms a distinct soundtrack to British life, announcing events of both national and personal importance, relatively little is known about it.

This year is an important one for bellringers across the country. 2018 marks 100 years since the Armistice, the agreement between Britain, France and Germany which brought the devastating First World War to a long overdue close.

On November 11th 1918, church bells were rung across the country to mark the war’s end, and the arrival of peace. On November 11th of this year, church bells across the country will be rung to commemorate this – in the morning, bells will be rung ‘half muffled’ in sombre remembrance, and in the afternoon, they will be rung ‘open’ in celebration of peace.

To celebrate this bittersweet anniversary, and to commemorate the 1,400 bellringers who lost their lives in the conflict, Ringing Remembers, a project initiated by Big Ideas, is looking to recruit 1,400 new bellringers.

Of the project, Jamie Singleton, Ringing Remembers’ Campaign Coordinator, said: “It’s going really well, we’ve got new learners from across the UK and we’re over halfway to our target now.

“It’s been popular and it’s resonating really well with people, but there is still some way to go if we want to achieve our goal so we’re keen to find more sign ups.”

Mr Singleton has himself taken up bell ringing in support of the campaign: “It has many different benefits and is such a multi-faceted hobby – the feeling of developing skills and becoming good at something is addictive,” he said.

“I love that when I am ringing I can switch off from life’s stresses, not thinking about the past or worrying about the future. You have to focus and be in the moment, it’s almost meditative. You can also make mistakes and have the opportunity to push on from any failures. It is great for confidence.”

St Peter’s Church Hutton – Bell Ringing

The particular group of bellringers I was lucky enough to encounter one grey Monday evening were made up of worshippers from St Peter’s Church, bellringers from All Saints’ Church Kilham, and several keen non-worshippers.

The diversity of the group, whose youngest bellringer is 17 and whose oldest is in their eighties, underscored well the inclusivity of bell ringing.

“What’s really nice about bell ringing is that you can go on holiday and look up when the local tower is practicing, and you’re always welcome, wherever you go,” said Louise Cowton, who has been bell ringing since she was 11.

According to Louise, she was somewhat forcefully encouraged to take up bell ringing as a young girl by her father, who is himself a keen bellringer. “It was a definite shove rather than a prod,” laughed Louise. “He was a ringer so I was going to be a ringer.”

Indeed, bell ringing seems to be a family affair, a tradition passed from generation to generation. At the practice, there were three generations of the Pickles family – Matthew, his father Andrew, and his son Jacob.

You might be surprised to discover that bell ringing as we know it – that familiar collection of sounds that can be heard in most parts of the country every Sunday morning – is a thoroughly English tradition.

“It’s uniquely English, ringing bells like this – what’s called full-circle ringing, where the bell is turning through a full 360 degrees. It’s only really done in England,” explained Matthew, who has been a ringer since he was 15.

While the British Isles is home to around 5,500 full circle towers, the rest of the world has only 150 put together.

“In other countries, they would tend to just swing the bells a little bit – what they would call chiming,” said Matthew.

“Or in some countries they just hit the outside of the bell.”

On 11 November 2018, 100 years since Armistice, bells will ring out in unison from churches and cathedrals in villages, towns and cities across the country. Big Ben will also strike at 11am to mark the centenary. To mark the final year of the First World War centenary commemorations, 1,400 new bell ringers will be recruited in honour of the 1,400 that lost their lives during the First World War.

A publication released by Ringing Remembers suggests that bell ringing is a skill ‘that is both a sport and an art, social, a mental exercise and good for focus and fitness’.

Doreen Stephenson, who has been bell ringing for 25 years, and was motivated to start after seeing the ringers at St Peter’s, appreciates the mental challenge that bell ringing involves. “You have to think about it rather than just waving your arms in the air,” she said.

St Peter’s Church Hutton – Bell Ringing

Doreen, like many, also enjoys the social side of bell ringing. “It’s very companionable. It’s a sociable activity.”
Louise agrees.

“It’s pretty boring as a solo hobby! It’s very welcoming, that’s what I like about bell ringing.”

The beautiful St Peter’s Church at Hutton.

Having received a kind welcome from those at St Peter’s, and enjoyed a cup of tea with a Tunnock’s caramel wafer along with a chat, I decided to give it a go myself.

Bell ringing involves a handstroke and a backstroke – beginners learn these two strokes separately. The handstroke involves pulling the sally – the fluffy part of the rope – downwards. This starts the bell moving, turning it through 360 degrees.

The backstroke involves pulling the tail end – the other part of the rope – which moves the bell in the opposite direction so that it finishes back where it started. The bell strikes on both strokes – one full cycle makes the bell strike twice. An experienced bellringer can vary the timing of the handstroke and backstroke in order to allow the bell to sound when they need, which is essential when ringing with others.

Once you are able to ring both strokes separately with the help of a teacher, the next step is to learn to ring both strokes together. This takes practice because it requires quite a bit of coordination.

With the invaluable help and encouragement of Louise and Matthew, and after a few shaky attempts, I managed a successful backstroke. I can confirm that it was a lot of fun and very satisfying, and would definitely be beneficial to my fitness if I were to do enough of it.

There are many churches in Driffield and the surrounding villages that offer bell ringing. If you would be interested in joining in with this poignant act of commemoration and becoming one of 1,400 new bellringers, get in touch with your local church.

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