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: (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.


Posted in Family

The Scent of a Grandma

Picking up on the thread from my Mother’s Day post, The Scent of a Mummy, I’m reporting here on a memorable meeting with my late Grandma’s cousin Nina.

Nina and Laura together
It seems Nina (98) and Laura (11) share the same smile genes

It was with some trepidation that I offered to take my Auntie Thelma (my father’s younger sister) on a round-trip to Minehead, on the Somerset coast, to visit her mother’s (my grandmother’s) cousin Nina.

Outings with Auntie Thelma are always good fun. She’s good company, generous, funny and liberal-minded, and from since I was very young, she’s been more influential on me than perhaps she realises. She’s introduced me to different arts and crafts concepts, taken me to terrific museums and galleries, and helped shape my aesthetic tastes. She’s also inspired me with her endless creativity and application to the arts and crafts that she enjoys producing herself – much like my dad. (There’s a post here celebrating my father’s many talents.)

Next Best Thing to Visiting Grandma

Old photo of Nina aged 20
Nina at the age of 20

So it wasn’t Auntie Thelma’s company that made me nervous, but the prospect of meeting for the first time a lady who was my Grandma”s cousin. Grandma died when I was 12. We were very close, and I still often dream at night of going to her house to tea, and wake up disappointed to realise I can no longer do that in real life. Grandma was born in 1900 (a very neat achievement, I’ve always thought), so would have been 114 if she were alive today. Nina, by contrast, at just 98, is a spring chicken. She is however the oldest person I have ever met. Born in 1916, meeting her was a useful opportunity for my daughter Laura, who is studying the First World War at school this term. We took a special photograph of the two of them together for Laura to take into school the next day for show-and-tell. Her classmates were impressed.

Nor was I anxious about being in the company of a very old person. I love old people, and for years was good friends with my next-door neighbours in Hawkesbury Upton, James and Hester Harford, who when they died in 2000 wer aged 96 and 90 respectively.

Why So Nervous?

old photo of my Grandma
My Grandma

So why the big build-up? It was because the only photograph that I’d seen of Nina made her look very much like my Grandma. I thought it might be emotionally overwhelming to meet someone who was Grandma’s spitting image, not least because it would fill me with remorse for having never made the effort to meet Nina before.

As it turned out, Nina didn’t remind me of Grandma visually (although comparing her photo with Grandma’s I still see a resemblance). But she shared my Grandma’s quick wit, dry humour and candour, and I really enjoyed her company. Although she is less mobile than she’d like to be, using a tea-trolley in lieu of a zimmer frame to get around the house, she is absolutely on the ball, and her conversation is wide-ranging, evocative of past times but anchored in the present, seasoned by the self-knowledge of a very old lady looking back.

A Lovely Afternoon

Selfie of Grandma's cousin Nina, my aunt, my sister, my daughter and me
The four-generation selfie

We enjoyed lunch together, and after a couple of hours took our leave, wary of wearing her out, but not before we’d taken plenty of photographs, both of her old family portraits – there’s a stunning picture of her when she was 20 – and of ourselves as a group: Auntie Thelma, my sister Mandy, my daughter Laura and me. There can’t be many 98 year olds who enjoy being part of a selfie.

But the visit was not without its emotional trauma. Having parked outside her apartment block (an elegant building with a view of the sea), as we stood waiting for her to answer the door, I was overwhelmed with a strong perfume that suddenly descended upon me like a cloud for no apparent reason. It was an overpowering floral scent. One moment it was not there; the next it engulfed me.

A Fragrant Mystery

I couldn’t quite identify the fragrance. It was neither honeysuckle, nor freesias (my Grandma’s favourite scent), but it was equally heady, yet I didn’t spot any immediate cause of it in the plain, paved yard in which we were standing.

More formal photo of Nina, Thelma, Mandy and Laura
Four generations, total age nearly two and a half centuries

Then Nina opened the door, we went in, and in the flurry of greetings, I neglected to mention the perfume to anyone else, to see if they’d noticed it too. (I did however doubt my sanity for a moment, because a former boss of mine, the editor of a magazine I worked on decades ago, told me with the benefit of his previous career as a psychiatric nurse that olfactory hallucinations, to use his technical term, was a sign of madness.)

It was only days later, having opened a purchase that I’d made on the bric-a-brac stall at a village fete on Saturday, that I realised which flower it was. What I’d bought was a richly-scented Penhaligon candle, still in its box. Its perfume, exuding so powerfully from the packaging that you could almost see it, was Lily-of-the-Valley.

And then the connection hit me: that this was the fragrance that engulfed me as I stood on Nina’s doorstep. And what you need to know to realise why this connection was so extraordinary is this: my beloved Grandma’s first name. It was – of course – Lily.

Posted in Family

A Tribute On Remembrance Day to Brave Women Survivors

English: Remembrance day poppy icon and slogan
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although few women were active in the front line of the Great War, there can’t have been many who lived through it who were not affected personally, either emotionally or practically. The women in my family were no exception. Here are the stories of three of them.

Peggy’s Story

Raised in a Welsh coal-mining village, my maternal grandmother Peggy was one of nine children. Born in 1913, she was just a baby when war broke out. Her oldest sibling, Johnny, was not old enough to join the military legally, but so eager was he to enlist that he lied about his age. You could do that in those days: there were no computers keeping tabs on everyone’s personal details from the moment they were born. If recruitment officers had any suspicions about an applicant’s age, they were likely to turn a blind eye: their job was to sign people up.

But lie Johnny did, and when he was killed in France in action, it must have broken the hearts of his mother and sisters, and probably many girls in his village too, judging from the charm of his sister’s son who I met when I was a child.

Although Peggy was too young to have strong memories of the war, she grew up surrounded by her family’s grief and bereavement for its lost son. Their grief was compounded when her father was killed in a coalmining accident. They were spared from poverty only by her mother having the previous week been persuaded by “the man from the Pru” to take out life insurance. With so many children, she was not sure that she could afford the premium, but the insurance man kindly offered to pay the first week’s installment.

I’m sure this dual loss  forever shaped her attitude to her menfolk. For a start, she named her first son Robert John, her maiden name having been Roberts. I used to wonder why she spoiled her husband and two sons so much, waiting on them hand and foot, never letting them help with the washing up or other chores. She even did all the DIY tasks herself. One morning, when I was a teenager, I watched her pour milk dotingly on her husband’s cereal, and wondered at such unnecessary indulgence.  Only after her death did I realise that she was still dealing with the loss of young Johnny and her father. She treasured her men, because she wasn’t confident how long they’d be with her. (To be fair, she was very indulgent to the girls in the family too!) It might also help account for why that side of my family is very matriarchal.

Peggy died when I was 22 and she was much too young, just 69. Ironically, her beloved husband outlived her by five years.

Lily’s Story

My maternal grandmother Lily was born in Rotherhithe, East London in 1900 – a year full of promise for the new millennium.  A teenager during the Great War, she was a clever, level-headed girl, winning prizes for recitation, a much-admired skill in those days before television and radio. Lily’s father was killed  in a docklands accident when she was just two. Her mother remarried when Lily was about 9, to a Cotswolds man who had come to London to join the police force. After leaving Grey Coats school in Westminster, Lily learned shorthand and typing at Pitman’s School in London, where one of her teachers was engaged to war poet Rupert Brooke.

One day in about 1915, she arrived home to find her street cordoned off following an explosion at the nearby munitions store, Woolwich Arsenal. Unable to find her  mother, Lily presumed she had been killed. Later that day, Lily was found running, hysterical, through the streets, by a policeman who recognised her as his colleague’s stepdaughter. He took her back to the police station to be reunited with her stepfather and they eventually found her mother safe and sound.

It must therefore have been especially hard for the adult Lily when  Britain declared war on Germany, two days short of her son’s (my father’s) seventh birthday. She and her three children were immediately evacuated to Todenham, near Moreton-in-Marsh, where her stepfather had retired to live with his second wife. Lily and her children stayed there for about four years, with my grandfather visiting when he could at weekends. Having been turned down for military service due to poor health, he had to stay in London, working as a clerk in the City. His part in the war was to serve as an ARP Warden in the evenings – near Woolwich Arsenal.  How difficult it must have been for Lily, fearing for her husband night after night, as she had done for her mother.

I was extremely close to Lily when I was a child and we spoke of anything and everything, but she never talked about the war. A wonderful mother and grandmother, she was content with her family and her peaceful lifestyle, and never liked to venture far or often from home. But in a different era, without those life-changing traumas, she might have had quite a different lot. Intelligent, witty and observant, she had all the right qualities to be a wonderful teacher, writer, broadcaster, or many other professions. Such missed opportunities, such unfulfilled potential are significant overlooked side-effects of war.

Lily died aged 72 of a stroke, when I was 12. I miss her very much.

Edie’s Story

Like so many working-class women of her generation, my great-great-aunt Edie had no career choice but to go into service. A tall, handsome woman, she told me that she was constantly admonished by the butler to stand up straight: “Edith, be proud of your inches!”

When working as a cook in a large, wealthy household, she fell in love with the chauffeur. They were lucky enough to be able to afford to marry. But it was not long before war broke out, and her new husband went off to be a soldier.

This happened so soon after their marriage that he had not yet informed the authorities that Edie was his next of kin. Consequently the dreaded telegram reporting his death in France was sent to Edie’s mother-in-law, who rushed round in distress to blurt out the news without thinking of breaking it gently. He had been blown apart by a shell. There was no body to bury. So profound was the shock that it caused Edie to miscarry, so she did not even have their child to console her. She returned into service and never stopped loving her husband.

“There have been others that would have had me since then, but no,” she told me simply, when I was a child. “No other would ever do.”

She went on to live in virtual spinsterhood with her older sister Becky. I’d liken her situation to going into a convent, were it not for the fact that Becky, who never married, sported bright red lipstick till she died. A few years later, Edie, then in her 80s,  died still bearing her soldier husband’s name.


The decision not to marry or remarry after the Great War was involuntary for many women of Edie’s generation, because there was a serious shortage of eligible young men – the result of so many war deaths. Some women married outside of their peer group.  Lily, for example, married a man aged 5 years young than herself, unusual even by today’s standards. Others consigned themselves to remaining single. At least, unlike the young men, they were alive.

Remembrance Day Service, War Memorial, Hawkesbury Upton, 2012This article was originally written as a contribution to the 1st Hawkesbury Guides’ excellent exhibition in Hawkesbury Upton Village Hall on Remembrance Day 2012. The Guides are pictured on the right of the photo here,  along with the many villagers who attended the Remembrance Day service by the village war memorial this morning.