Ringing in Somerset’s tallest bell tower

Sarah Villiers

The following is written by Sarah Villiers, who is learning to ring for Ringing Remembers at St Cuthbert’s, Wells. Would you like to contribute your learning to ring story? We would love to hear from you. Read more learner’s stories here and email bells@big-ideas.org for more information.

Sarah (right) with fellow Ringing Remembers learner Suzy

Sarah: What got me going? It was just chance that started me off! I happened to catch an item on Radio 4 soon after Remembrance Day last year. It reported that over 1,400 bell-ringers were killed during WWI and that the aim was to recruit that number for a special peal for Armistice Day 2018. Well, that was a challenge I couldn’t ignore.

Amongst various other volunteering jobs (I am a geriatric and therefore ‘retired’) I work at the city museum and we are dominated at the moment by an exhibition on WWI so it is very much on my mind. Also, I now live 100 metres from a beautiful church with the tallest tower in Somerset. If I sit in my garden on a Friday evening, I hear the ringing practice. Bells are such a very English sound – I missed them when working abroad – so evocative and so much part of our local soundscape. So, I made enquiries and signed up.

That was the easy bit.

Bells are heavy! I even found ‘pulling off’ quite an effort for starters. I hope it is firming up my biceps. I really have to concentrate so I trust it keeps the old grey cells flourishing for a bit longer. Hand-strokes, back-strokes, sallies, bobs, grandsires – there is a whole new vocabulary to learn. Bell-ringing is good for you, mentally and physically! It’s uplifting when suddenly, at last, it all seems to come together and you find a rhythm and you feel as if you could keep going for ever!

But our trainers (there are now three of us Ringing Remembers learners) have had to be patient. We practice most Friday evenings and have recently added further bell-handling sessions on Saturday morning. We are five months in and it is only now that we can (mostly) control the bell sufficiently to be able to follow others in the tower and ‘keep our place’ in the rounds, rather than hope others will follow us! And there were moments when each of us felt we’d never catch on. But we were urged on, promised rewards of success, and we are really getting there now.

CCTV can help learners to understand what is happening at the other end of the rope. Ringing Remembers learner Fiona is closest to camera

We learn a lot by watching other’s techniques. And everyone is so kindly and helpful in answering our questions, sharing experiences, binding us into the group. We are a very mixed bunch in age, gender, walks of life. None of the differences matter: for a couple of hours, we are bell-ringers.

Oh, I forgot to mention – there is always the invitation to move on to the pub afterwards. Strangely, for an activity with little talking, it’s thirsty work: old church account books always mention ‘beer for the ringers’!

There is always more to learn! So many different ‘changes’ named after different towns which each devised a particular pattern of ringing: endless mathematical alternatives, each making a joyous sound. There are even competitions for the advanced ringer. And ringers are a jolly lot! It seems they are always happy to let you join in if you are passing a church when they are ringing. It’s a skill you can take with you – like riding a bike, you never forget.

So hang in there. It comes good. And it’s wonderfully uplifting when it all ‘comes true’. Looking around the walls of the ringing chamber there are boards giving the names of previous ringers, what method they rang and how many changes they did, with the number of hours it took. It’s awe-inspiring! You feel part of an enormous tradition with a mile-long pedigree. Centuries of ringers each doing what you are now privileged to join.

 

St Cuthbert’s Wells

St Cuthbert’s Wells

A little history by Sarah: Once upon a time there was probably an early wooden church on the present site. The dedication to St Cuthbert is unusual in the south – as St Cuthbert was, after all, an Abbot in Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland.

Legend has it that when King Alfred was hiding from the Danes in the soggy marshlands of the Somerset levels near Athelney, he was in the depths of depression – so much so that he burnt the cakes of the peasant women in whose hut he was hiding. However, that night he had a dream – of St Cuthbert – who basically told him to hang on in there and it would all turn out OK. Thus emboldened, he gathered his dispersed troops, marched eastwards towards the Danish camp and won a resounding victory.  After this the Danish leader, Guthrum, agreed to become Christian and so was baptised in nearby Wedmore in 878AD. In thanks, on the already holy site in Wells (Druids and Romans had had shrines here) a church was (re-) dedicated to St Cuthbert.  It remains the Civic Church – with mayoral pew – despite the cathedral at the other end of the city.

 

About ringing at St Cuthberts by Tower Captain Andrew Deamer: There haven’t been learners at St Cuthberts for many years, a tacit acknowledgement that the bells are very heavy (27 cwt) and were very difficult to ring (long unguided ropes, lots of tower movement). Learners have, instead, been taught at the nearby tower of Wookey (6 bells, 11cwt), where many Wells ringers also frequent, but few learners have found their way back to St Cuthberts. However, the installation of a rope guide in 2015 made the bells substantially easier to ring, and it was this that led us to believe that teaching learners might be possible. Appropriately enough, Sarah came forward first, and as a direct result of the Ringing Remembers campaign. Fiona and Sarah are the result of personal contact with members of the band, and encouragement to ‘have a go’, and joined the campaign.

 

The Ringing Remembers campaign is recruiting 1,400 new bell ringers in memory of the 1,400 who lost their lives in World War One. All new recruits will have once in a life time opportunity to ring on Armistice Day (11 November) this year to mark 100 years since the end of the war. Find out more about the campaign and signup by visiting our Ringing Remembers project page.

Would you like to contribute your Ringing Remembers learning experience? We would love to hear from you. Read more learner’s stories here and email bells@big-ideas.org for more information. 

 

Posted 13 June 2018