Church bells have been a feature of English life for hundreds of years. Dozens of carols and songs, even current popular songs make mention of bells. Wedding cards and gift wrap very frequently have bells on them. Bells have been used for centuries to summon people to church, and they ring out over the countryside, in towns and cities all over the country especially on Sundays. Bells are also synonymous with celebration, but surprisingly, church bells rung the way they are in the UK is very much a British thing, as I will explain later.
Here in Great Chishill, our church, St Swithun’s, has 5 bells mounted in its tower. Four of these bells were made in 1686, and the 5th in 1841. We don’t know much about the history of the bells, whether they have always hung in this church or whether they rang somewhere else first, but we can be fairly certain that they have been ringing out in celebration for at least 300 years. We do know that they fell into disrepair in the 1970s but the village elected to have them renovated as a Millennium project and they have been rung regularly ever since.
The restoration that was done for the millennium, was in fact the minimum that needed doing to get them ringable to celebrate the millennium. They have been rung regularly, on practice night (Wednesday) nearly every week, on Sunday mornings before church services, at weddings and for the last four years at midnight to ring in the new year. However, they are difficult to ring for a variety of reasons, not least of which is because they are ‘odd struck’ which means that the clapper doesn’t catch up with the bell at the same time on the two different pulls on the rope. On top of that, the bells are mounted in a wooden frame which was made at about the same time as the bells, and it is believed that this frame was made out of recycled wood then – so goodness knows how old the wood for the frame is! There is nothing wrong with the frame being so old, it is safe, but it ‘gives’ and moves about a bit which has an effect on the timings.
We have had several surveys done recently, and they have all concluded that in order to put the problems right, and to keep the bells of St Swithun’s going, we need to spend at least £23,000 to have them rehung, and a further £20,000 if the frame is replaced with a galvanised steel frame. This option incidentally would give us the chance to ‘augment’ the tower to 6 bells. We have built up a restoration fund, and can apply for grants, but we really need some donations to move the work on. There are all sorts of ways of raising money, but one way of raising significant amounts is to have the bells dedicated to individuals, quite often ‘in memoriam’. There is quite a history of this, it is not at all unusual to find bells in churches that are hundreds of years old, with the names of benefactors cast into them.
My wife Sue and I started to learn to ring bells shortly after we came to Great Chishill at the end of 2006. We had seen the sign at the church saying that new people would be welcome, and we thought it would be a good way to meet people and become involved in village life. How right that proved to be! We had no previous knowledge about bell ringing, and if asked, we probably would have thought, like most people, that ringing the bells was just a matter of tugging on a rope to make the bell ring. We were to very soon find out that that is not the case at all. In fact, just getting the bell to ring is quite a skill, and getting it to ring at the right time proved to be near impossible for us for the first 3 months or so of learning!
Church bells in Britain and the Commonwealth and just a few other places, are rung in a completely different way to anywhere else in the world. We don’t just pull a rope to swing a bell until it chimes, we actually make the bell swing through slightly more than 360 degrees. The bell is connected to a large wooden wheel which has a diameter of about 2½ times the height of the bell, and it is to this that the rope is attached. The bell starts upside down, then when we pull on the rope, the bell rotates through a full circle until it is upside down again. The sound is made when the clapper inside the bell catches up with the bell, which is in fact after it has gone 180 degrees. The skill of just ringing the bell comes from the fact that you are holding onto a rope that has on the end of it, a piece of metal which weighs, in the case of the biggest bell in St Swithun’s, the equivalent of 7 full kegs of beer (10 cwt and 3 quarters). Once that is moving there is no way that you are going to be able to stop it. Secondly, there is a delay between pulling on the rope and the bell ringing. Once one has mastered the art of just ringing the bell on the hand stroke (that’s pulling on the woolly coloured part called the 'sally'), then on the back stroke, (when the sally has disappeared up into the ceiling), the next task is to be able to do it at just the right time, with just the right amount of pull, to make it ring just after the previous bell rang, so that the five bells ring one after the other, the highest pitched (the treble) ringing first, and the lowest, heaviest bell (the tenor) ringing last. Then it all starts again. This is called ringing in rounds, and it is what you will most commonly hear us doing. After that, it’s a matter of doing ‘change ringing’ where the order in which the bells are rung is changed, and after that ‘methods’ where all the bells change according to a fixed pattern on every round – but we won’t go into that here!
If you would like to know more about bell ringing in Great Chishill, then please come along at 8pm on a Wednesday and see what it is all about, or if you would like to make a donation, or fund raising suggestion, then please get in touch. The bells have been ringing out from the top of our hill for 300 years, lets keep them going well into the future!