This may look like just another Google Map to you, but every muscle in my body can assure you that it’s far more than that. This little screenshot of Southeast England represents the six villages and six churches that I visited on Saturday, spending about an hour at each one, ringing bells with my equally-crazy bellringing friends. Simply a perfectly English way to spend a cold, clear, frosty January day. I’ll take you on a tour.
The place-names will tell you straightaway that you’re not in Indiana anymore. We began in Harefield St Mary’s, Middlesex, with the winter sun low on the horizon.
We gathered in the churchyard, exchanged hushed greetings, some ringers sipping coffee or tea from thermoses they had brought against the chill of the morning.
The church itself was very cold, with that particular chill an empty, ancient stone building can contain. But it was filled with flowers from a recent funeral, and their fragrance filled the air and lit up the extravagant altar with color, providing a lively contrast with the carved, marble Eizabethan death monuments.
It was a beautiful place to ring, with six light and easy bells, befitting the first ring of the day. The ringers came from all over: our own dear St Mary’s Barnes, and Chiswick, and several ringers from Richmond and Fulham and one or two from the host church. We ran the gamut of skill: me at the bottom really, then our three teenage girls who formed a giggling gaggle all day, then the serious ringers who have been at it for many, many years.
I’ll explain a tiny bit about what we do. First we ring what are called “rounds,” in order from the highest sound (the lightest bell) down the numbers to the lowest sound (the heaviest bell), “la-la-la-la-la-la.” It’s surprisingly difficult to do, to be every single time fourth — for example — in order, every SINGLE time. A fraction of a second early and you CLANG onto the sound of the bell before you. A fraction of a second late and the bell after you CLANGS onto your sound. Every single time you pull the bell you have a fresh chance to get it right, which makes it a very satisfying, instant result. No delayed gratification necessary! But every mistake is intensely public and pointed to YOU.
Then once we’ve establish good consistent rounds, someone (the person called the conductor) begins to “call changes.” That is, he or she shouts, “Four to five,” and you on the fourth bell switch places with the fifth. The fifth follows the third and you take fifth’s place. The you have to pay close attention to what the conductor tells you to do next, but ALSO what he tells the fifth to do, since you’re following him! I find it incredibly challenging, but everyone tells me that eventually, following the directions becomes easy. The rules of change-ringing (as it’s called, when you begin to change places) means no bell can move more than one spot at a time. Also, the bells must be conducted back into “rounds” before we can be told to “stand,” which means to stop ringing. I cannot imagine being the conductor and keeping it all in my head!
The more advanced ringers ring what are called “Methods”, where the “changes” have been made into patterns and memorized, with names like “Cambridge Surprise Minor” or “Kent Treble Bob Major.” I truly cannot imagine ever managing to memorize a method. But it could happen. Never say die!
We moved through the graveyard, solemnly paying homage to the beautiful and touching ash memorials in the ancient wall.
This church is located in the area called, as you might imagine, “The Chalfonts.” These little villages, with “The Ruislips” and “The Slaughters” and “The Rissingtons” make up what one of my favorite mystery authors calls “guests at a dinner party.” As in, “I’ve invited the Chalfonts, but they can’t come, so I’ll ask the Ruislips instead.”
Chalfont St Giles was warm and cozy, overlooked by Cromwell and therefore still decorated with 14th-century religious paintings.
We rang St Giles’s eight bells, marvelling at how different they all felt from Harefield.
I wandered around the ringing chamber reading what are called “peal boards,” which list the conductor and ringers who have gathered in the past to ring a successful “method,” which usually takes about three hours. Our host pointed out to me Mr J.D. Shanklin. “This chap found time between ringing peals to discover the hole in the ozone layer.”
Even more touching, more personal, and more stunning to me than the timber itself, was this object, the original ladder leading to the bells. Looking at this ladder brings vividly to my mind the thousands of feet that climbed them from time immemorial, taking an hour or two out of their busy medieval, Renaissance, Elizabethan, Victorian, 21st century lives to care for the bells of St Giles.
From St Giles we went to Chalfont St Peter, a heavier ring of eight bells the heaviest of which weighed about 1000 pounds. Here the peal boards seemed to me the ultimate in Englishness. The names! Newton, Thackeray, Whittington. And a tribute to Mr E George Swift, who rang until he was 92 and then asked that a peal be rung on his birthday every year until he would have turned 100.
How beautiful that house must be in the spring, when the vines are heavy with flowers. And this house! Can you imagine living in such a picture-perfect place? It would make you behave differently, breaking into atrocious blank verse at the drop of a hat, wearing ruffs around your neck.
We had a lovely lunch in the Green Man pub — fillet of sea bream with a rich root vegetable dauphinoise and pickled fennel, delicious — and then walked through the village to St Mary’s, to ring their lovely HEAVY eight bells — the tenor (the heaviest and therefore lowest note) weighing just over a TON. I can assure I didn’t ring it! But I did ring the number 6 which weighed a half ton.
From there we headed to the only ten-bell church on our agenda, at Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire.
The sound of 10 bells being rung in rounds, once we got it perfectly timed, was simply majestic. Here is a recording (don’t click the link if you’re sitting next to a sleeping baby or mate!) of 10 bells, ringing partly in rounds and partly in a method. I think it could be a love-hate thing. Some neighbors living near to churches with bells think they’re in heaven, others get simply gaga at the sound every week.
We finished our day at Pinner, just outside London, in a lovely little crowded 8-bell chamber overlooking the nave of the church. The organist down below practiced doggedly throughout our ringing! The wheel that holds all the ropes — these with beautiful blue “Sallies” — is called a “spider” and is wafted into the air, high above the chamber, when the bells are at rest.
By this time we were all tired, cold and getting a bit cranky, with the conductors getting slightly scratchy at bad rounds or imprecise call changes. It was time to go home, at least for the teenagers and me, and our teachers.
We emerged in the cold twilight feeling a tremendous sense of achievement, rubbing our sore and blistered hands together, chattering about our favorite churches, the idiosyncracies of the bells, our goals and hopes and failures and embarrassments of the day. We turned around in the village street to see Pinner St John the Baptist rising on the hillside in the dark.
What a completely mad, bonkers, insane way to spend a day! Thank goodness for a good dinner at home: John had piled tons of extra toppings — peppers, mushrooms, grilled halloumi cheese, Parma ham — onto readymade pizzas and had steamed artichokes. Heaven!
So that was my ringing adventure, our “Winter Outing.” I will miss the “Summer Outing” when we’re at Red Gate Farm, but I’ll be in charge of organizing it because.… drum roll… I’ve been chosen as the new Tower Secretary for St Mary’s Barnes! I am very excited. Lots of admin, lots of email, and lots of ringing.
And of course Sunday morning found me up bright and early stretching tired muscles to ring for services at Barnes and Chiswick, feeling a bit martyred but quite proud. I cannot remember the last time in my life that I set a very difficult task, persevered and actually achieved my goal. It’s a rare enough feeling once we’re past school-age, and one to be savored, whatever the cost.
My reward for all this work was to invent something Avery had for lunch at school, and came home simply raving about. “Have you ever had Paris Butter, Mummy? It’s HEAVENLY!” It was but the work of a moment to google it and find many divergent recipes. The one that worked for us, melted onto grilled fillet steaks, was this:
(makes a large banana-sized roll, keeps for up to 3 months in foil in the freezer)
250g/1 cup butter
1 tbsp each: garlic, shallots, cornichons, capers, fresh tarragon, fresh thyme, fresh dill, fresh chives, freshrosemary, tomato paste, lemon zest, pine nuts, anchovy, brandy, madeira
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 pinch each: curry powder, cayenne pepper, paprika
juice of 1/2 lemon
Simply throw everything into a food processor or blender and mix until completely smooth. Roll in foil in a cylinder shape and freeze. Cut off one coin-shaped piece for each steak.
Duty calls now. Avery is home ill and listless with a cold, so chicken soup is in order. Then I’ll sit back, watch my blisters healing, and enjoy the memories of a magical day out in my adopted land. What an adventure it was.Print This Post