At school I was never what you might call sporty. In the winter we faced a mile long trudge to the hockey ground up the 1:4 gradient known as Chalky Lane. I still shudder at the mention of it. In summer I was supposed to be good at netball on account of my height, but despite once being sent off for ‘behaving like an over-excited chimpanzee’ I was not very competitive, lacking the killer instinct of my teammates who scared the navy blue gym pants off me.
Later I dallied with tennis which seemed more civilised, especially when I found a dreamy partner with wavy brown hair who picked me up in his convertible VW Golf. Sadly he eventually grew weary of my misguided fidelity to a steady boyfriend (who preferred squash), and our summer afternoons on the court faded away like the memory of what might have been.
Under the tutelage of a glamorous fish-netted blonde called Miss Lindsey I studied ballet from the age of seven, but quit at seventeen when it became un-cool. Those ten years in a tutu gave me a terrific physique and from time to time the notion crosses my mind that I should take it up again, especially when I watch my daughter put through her paces in the dance studio. Sadly the vision of me emulating an elegant Darcy Bussel is quickly superseded by that of a dancing Disney hippopotamus in Fantasia.
As life progressed, my physical education shuffled to a crawl. I attended the odd (and I mean odd) dance class, panted my way through a few punishing Zumba sessions, took up open water swimming (for fun) and learnt to stand on my head in yoga, but generally I grew sedate, sedentary and stout.
But there is one thing, that has, for the last six years, kept me from the brink of complete physical and mental atrophy, something that provides a weekly hit of adrenaline, amusing social interaction, and a sense of tribal belonging. It has remained a dark secret I omit to mention when in cool sophisticated company:
I am a church bell ringer, a campanologist, a fully paid up member of the Beverley & District Bell Ringers Society, and thus part of a worldwide family of fellow rope-pullers, with an embroidered club hoody and a log book to prove it.
The launch of an initiative called Ringing Remembers, supported by the culture secretary Karen Bradley and the communities secretary Sajid Javid, has encouraged me to come out in public and talk openly for the first time about my nerdy pastime. The project this year aims to recruit 1,400 new bell ringers to join in a national day of remembrance on 11 November 2018, marking the end of the Great War. The figure represents the number of bell ringers who lost their lives fighting in the conflict. Church bells across the UK, which were mostly silenced throughout the war, rang out on the declaration of armistice in 1918, and this year it is hoped that bells will ring, in unison, from every church and cathedral in villages, towns and cities all over the country. Big Ben will also strike at 11am to mark the centenary of Armistice Day, and I’ll admit that I am rather excited to be part of this event.
Let me present just five reasons that might persuade you to throw off the shackles off über coolness, don a tea-stained anorak and comfy shoes and join me on an adventure into the dark and secret recesses of a church tower.
TONE: According to http://www.nutracheck you can burn 128 calories in a 60-minute bell ringing session. I am told that the practice of swinging huge noisy bronze bells was adopted as an early keep-fit craze. The ringers would muffle the bells so as not to disturb the townsfolk while they worked out, hence the modern day ‘dumbbell’. I never regret turning up to ‘band practice’, and if I arrive with an aching back or tense shoulders they are miraculously cured by the end of our 90 minute session. (Before I spark a Lourdes style mass pilgrimage to St. James’ church in Nunburnholme, I should say that I don’t think that this is because of the mysterious sacred Saxon cross in the middle of our bell tower)
Also, unlike a gym membership, ringing is FREE. If you want the cool hoodie you might have to fork out £10 or so a year to become a member of a bell ringing association, but it’s worth it for the scintillating annual reports. Your tower might also ask a small fee towards the Rope Fund, but once you’re good enough, you can ring for weddings and earn it back, with interest.
THRILL: If you are an adrenaline junky or just partial to a little endorphin rush now and again, learning the ropes is perfect for you. The challenges equal those of gaining an HGV licence, although I confess I can’t count trucking among my hidden talents, but people say the process of learning how to ring safely is similar to taking driving lessons, except until you master it, this vehicle is wayward, heavy and unpredictable. The first knee-trembling months of Tuesday evenings spent in the hands of my inexhaustibly patient and dependable teachers gave me such a rush. On more than one occasion I missed the sally (technical word) and found myself having to wrangle the bell back under control like a cowboy in a rodeo. The satisfaction of finding that bite on the clutch and smoothly moving off like a pro on the day of your driving test is easily matched by ‘grabbing hold’ (another technical term) gently easing the bell up to the balance and then feeling it drop somewhere just above your head, knowing that you have it tamed, and can make it sound wonderful in time with the other bells in your band.
It is also refreshing to be in an environment where H&S very much takes a back seat. Bell ringing carries a certain level of risk. Once, I almost hanged myself, not because bell ringing had brought me to a desperate point in my life, but because of a momentary lapse in concentration. Another time I drove a fellow ringer to A&E with a broken finger, and there is a casual rule about not crossing your legs if sitting on the sidelines in case the rope catches you and drags you to the ceiling by your ankle. This seems a little far-fetched to me, but I’m not willing to put it to the test.
TRAIN THE BRAIN: Once you have mastered a certain level of bell handling skills and tested your nerve and physical strength, it is time to exercise the grey matter. Anyone who likes codes, puzzles or Sudoku will like this bit: The bell tower is essentially an enormous musical instrument. Each ringer is responsible for making the instrument play in time and tunefully, a true team sport where the band works, as one, to synchronise their bell into a seamless peal. The ‘music’ is written in the form of ‘methods’, zigzag lines on a matrix of numbers that represent the bells, in our case six. One learns, by rote, the sequence in which the bells dodge, skip and swap places with each other. So far, I can make a decent fist of ringing Plain Hunt On Five. Don’t tell my Tower Captain, but I can barely remember my own phone number so chances are I will never master Mensa-level methods that go on for hours such as A Full Peal, Plain Bob Minor, or the scarily titled Grandsire, but it’s nice to pretend.
TEAM: A bell ringer’s band consists of folk from a broad cross-section of society. Only last night, at our boozy post-Christmas social, I looked down the long table of campanology comrades, among them lecturer, teacher, chimney sweep, story teller, carpenter, engineer, surgeon and farmer, and felt very lucky to know this funny bunch. As a beginner, if you show even the remotest interest, you are welcomed with open arms and an almost tear-jerking level of support and encouragement. Band practice is a healthy cross between serious attainment of personal goals, and plain old-fashioned banter. Village gossip and giggles usually outweigh the serious bit. If you attend a Striking Contest, however, the judge’s comments are delivered deadpan, astonishing in their attention to detail and no-nonsense attitude. There’s no room for Bruno Tonioli types in competitive ringing.
It is also worth noting that being ‘Churchy’ is not a pre-requisite to being a church bell ringer. It is equally acceptable for you to slope off after ringing on a Sunday morning before the vicar catches your eye, as it is for you to hang about for the service and enjoy the tea and chocolate biscuits afterwards. Either way, your contribution helps to guarantee the upkeep of the church building itself, and maintain the beating heart of the community.
TEMPTATION: And finally…if you’re about my age, you might remember the scene in Mermaids where a tearful Winona Ryder, on hearing the news of the assassination of JFK, climbs the steps of the convent bell-tower to sound the death knell. As the bell slowly swings to a halt, the achingly dishy, floppy-haired Michael Schoelffling joins her, and they end up entwined in a passionate clinch. Just saying, if you’re looking for love, it might be worth a shot…
#bellringing #ringingremembers #keepfit #learningtheropes #nerd #churchbells
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