Ringing where England began

So-Shan Au

The following is written by So-Shan Au who is learning to ring at All Saints, Kingston upon Thames as part of the Ringing Remembers campaign. Read more learner’s stories here.

Pictured with my patient tutors, Kate and Paul Flavell

I’m obsessed with all things London. I love London history and finding quirky and unusual things to do in this great city. I’m currently visiting all the City churches – there are 55 churches listed on the Friends of City Churches website with a few which have just the towers left intact. I must admit to having a fondness for Wren architecture and churches. I’m also attempting to visit the churches that appear in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons, which features bells so prominently. In fact, the first time I got to see some bell ringing was at the great Cockney church of St Mary-le-Bow. I found it both mesmerising and fascinating.

I’ve always loved listening to the bells ringing out on a Sunday morning. I have a good friend who rings and he has explained the finer details of how the bells work, and about ringing, methods and call changes, and he has tried to get me to have a go too. Although I don’t fully understand the science, mechanics and engineering of the bells, I love them for the wonderful craftsmanship – the bells as beautiful objects of art. I’ve visited a few towers over the years and had the opportunity to watch and listen to some ringing, including the lovely new Royal Jubilee bells at St James Garlickhythe, and have found it totally meditative.

I’ve been meaning to learn to ring but it was not until I read about the Ringing Remembers campaign that I was motivated to learn properly. I’ve been ringing for around 3 months now, give or take a few weeks away for work trips and other commitments. That’s one of the problems with ringing, you can’t practice at home or while you’re away on business trips. (Although once I’m more confident and am visiting a country with bells, I hope to be able to find a tower with a practice night when I’m away too!)

It feels great to have finally mastered handling the bell. Everyone thinks you have to be strong to ring; yes, some of the bells are heavy, but it’s more about coordination, mental abilities, listening skills and team work, rather than muscles and strength.

I’m ringing locally at All Saints Church in Kingston upon Thames, historically in Surrey but now part of Greater London. The church has historical significance. The first King of England – Athelstan in 925AD – was crowned at the church, making it arguably the place where England began (https://www.allsaintskingston.co.uk/heritage/where-england-began). We have the privilege of having 12 bells at our tower. The earliest records of bells in Kingston are in the 16th century, then in 1681 a new frame was installed, and the ring was increased from six to eight, around the time when change ringing was becoming an established art.

Then in 1748 the bells were recast and increased to 10 by Robert Catlin of Holborn. Further recasting of individual bells took place at several times up to 1936, when a major refurbishment resulted in a ring of 10 with a tenor of 27cwt. Over the years these bells became somewhat difficult to ring, although they were held in considerable affection by the ringers, not least because of the unusual anti-clockwise rope circle.

The current bells date from 1972 and the wooden frame was replaced by a new metal one, and the bells were increased to 12, this time with a conventional clockwise rope circle. Six of the old bells were kept and the other four were recast to form the treble, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 10th and 11th of the new ring.

I’m learning to ring on the 4th bell (4-2-20) which happens to be one of the 1936 original bells. I love being in the tower, seeing all the old peal boards (some date from the 1800s) and thinking of all the ringers who have stood where I’m standing on a Wednesday night and rung before me on the same bell. It’s a bell with so much history and a link to the past.

I love this sense of history and connection to the past. I recently passed my level 1 assessment and my certificate has been hung up in the tower. I like that I’m joining a long roll call to past ringers and how it connects me to the history and ringers of the tower. And it connects me very much to the Ringing Remembers campaign. Four members of the bell ringing band at Kingston served. You can read more here: https://halfmuffled.wordpress.com/the-towers-and-men/g-w/kingston-upon-thames-all-saints/

I’m currently learning with two other learners and we’ve affectionately nicknamed the bells we’re ringing, Bathsheba (4th) and Billy (7th), but they’ve started to take up characteristics of their namesake; Bathsheba reminds me of the character in Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far From the Madding Crowd (Hardy just so happens to be one of my favourite writers; Deb chose it for alliteration purposes, but I like the happy coincidence); at times, she is independent and strong-willed, other times somewhat temperamental and proud. I like it when you’re in the moment and everything comes together – your body is in full synchronicity with the bell, which means you are in full control, and you manage to make a pleasant sound too.

It’s great having other learners to support you, but it’s also fantastic having the support and encouragement from a band of very experienced ringers, some with over 50 years ringing! My tutors Kate and Paul Flavell are very active in the ringing community and experienced ringing teachers. They’ve been really patient and encouraging. One of our ringers, Geoff Paul recently had a quarter peal rung to celebrate 70 years of ringing – I’m looking forward to reaching such momentous milestones.

It’s great when it all comes together. I’m just ringing rounds at the moment, but when you can hold your place while ringing rounds, well, there’s a huge sense of accomplishment! I’ve only managed it a few times, but I feel that I’m getting better the more I practice, so I’m diligently going to Wednesday practice nights and Sunday for Evensong.

I’m really enjoying bell ringing, especially learning new skills. It’s so nice to get away from the stresses of work and daily life and get in the tower and only think about mastering the bell and coordinating with your band. It’s also nice to feel part of something, and part of the community too.

You can follow my ringing progress on my blog: http://thephotostoryofmylife.tumblr.com/

A video of one of my first goes at ringing rounds is here (I promise I’ve improved since then): http://thephotostoryofmylife.tumblr.com/post/171909611321/video-posted-to-instagram-ringing-rounds-and


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 clicking here.

Read more learner’s stories here.


Posted 3 May 2018