Posted in Family, Personal life, Reading, Writing

The Call of the Bells

In this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, as new bells arrive at our parish church, I’m reflecting on bell ringing and bell ringers in English churches and explaining why I’m taking up bell ringing. 

photo of Bill Shimmans
My great grandfather, Bill Shimmans, was an accomplished bell ringer

Ever since I learned that my great-grandfather, born in 1873, was an accomplished bell ringer, I’ve felt an affinity to church bells, but never had the chance to learn to ring them. Now that I’m training to ring the new bells of our parish church, I’ve been finding out some fascinating facts about bell ringing – or rather, sounding the depths of my ignorance.

I’d never realised that each church bell has to be tuned to a precise musical pitch. I hadn’t even classified bells as musical instruments. Now I know they are the loudest musical instrument of all.

Nor had I appreciated that in other countries bells are commonly hung and struck in a different way. I thought “carillon” was the name of a tune played by bells, as in Bruges’ Belfort. Now I’ve discovered it’s the name of the musical instrument used to play tunes on the bells. It’s strung a little like a piano, and each key activates a wire that strikes hammers against the outsides of the bells. A single operator sounds all the bells.

By contrast, in so-called English-style bell ringing, bells are mounted on a headstock allowing them to swing through 360 degrees. Each bell is operated by an individual person, and when the ringer pulls the rope, the clapper strikes the inside of the bell twice during each full rotation.

While it was still being constructed in Matthew Higby’s workshop, the framework from which the new bells will be hung (Photo by Sir Ian Macfadyen)

Not for English-style ringers the dainty tunes of the carillon. We make life more complicated for ourselves by defining complex and varying mathematical sequences. Each variation in the sequence is known as a change, hence the expression “ringing the changes”.

My family still has my great-grandfather’s certificates and press cuttings for completing eight- and twelve-bell peals of over 5,000 changes apiece in churches in Bedford, London, Middlesex and Kent. The peals bear unfathomable names that characterise English-style change-ringing, such as the Treble Bob Maximus, Stedman Cinques, and the New Cambridge Surprise Major. (I’d love to know what the surprise was!) Each complete peal took at least three hours, even if the ringers did it right first time. One certificate wryly notes completion on the fifth attempt.

some of Bill Shimmans' certificates for peals
Just a few of my great-grandpa’s records of his bell-ringing career

My great-grandfather died three years before I was born, and he passed on his musical genes to my grandpa, who served for many years as choirmaster in the church where my parents were married and where I was christened. It’ll be a long time before I can tackle a peal of the complexity mastered by my great-grandfather. On the dumb bell in Colin Dixon’s barn, I’m still learning how to control a bell and how to ring it consistently and evenly. But the first time I ring in St Mary’s, I’ll be thinking of my great-grandpa and grandpa, and ringing for them.

photo of the choir of the Holy Redeemer, Sidcup
My Grandpa, the choirmaster of the parish church of the Holy Redeemer, Sidcup- top right

Like to know more about St Mary’s and its new bells?

  • Find out more about the beautiful ancient parish church and idyllic setting of St Mary’s, Hawkesbury via our website: www.friendsofstmaryshawkesbury.com (I’m on the Friends of St Mary’s committee and manage this website.)
  • On YouTube, watch the historic service held to bless the bells before they are installed – it’s a service so rare that our vicar had never been involved in one before, and it’s likely that many parish priests are never called upon to do one.

Bell-ringing in fiction

photo of old paperback edition of The Nine TailorsI’m planning to write a story featuring bells at some point, but in the meantime, I’d like to recommend one of my favourite novels that centres around church bells, The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers – a hugely atmospheric traditional mystery in which a dead body is found in the bell tower of a village in Norfolk, and the iconic amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey investigates. As you can tell from the battered state of the cover, I’ve read it many times. And yes, I named my heroine Sophie Sayers after my writing hero Dorothy L Sayers – and I have a cat called Dorothy!

In case you missed it…

My column for last month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, entitled “Trust Me, I’m a Bell Ringer“, includes a photo of me practising on the dumb bell with an anecdote of how my new hobby almost got me in trouble with the law.