There is no such thing as a typical bell ringer. It is true that over the years there has been much type-casting, much of it based around the art remaining an all-male activity for so long. This mainly dates back to the early centuries when poorly engineered bell fittings gave a case for associating ringing with physical strength. Emphasis was then placed on the levels of thirst claimed to have been induced and the type of refreshment essential to alleviate this sorry condition. Of course, things are very different now!
By Victorian times, ringers had begun to clean up their image. For references to many St. Andrew’s ringers dating back to this time we need look no further than the ringing chamber walls, although the information gleaned about the individuals themselves can be scant. On a somewhat worrying memorial plaque for a ringer who died in 1851, the emphasis is that “two days before his death he rung a peal which lasted one hour & a half”. Hopefully this was intended to indicate retention of good health up to the last rather than imply cause and effect!
One of the main differences between the past and present is that ringers used to be paid for ringing on Sundays and special occasions. Now, payment is made for weddings only. Giving particularly informative insight into ringing at St. Andrew’s around a century ago is the list of “Rules for Ringers” dated 1907. Presumably with sharing out of payment in mind, there was a strict limitation on membership of the tower to eight ringers and no more than six probationers at any one time. The rules, all enforceable with fines, are numerous and go on to refer to the now unusual custom of each ringer being assigned a particular bell. Also covered is attendance, prohibitions on taking food or drink into the tower or the hand bells into a public house, and dealing with ‘unbecoming behaviour’. Perhaps the rule most in line with current practice is one preventing ringing continuing beyond 9.00pm. In the early 1900s, however, there was an exception, less familiar nowadays: this was “The Eve of the Feast of Circumcision”.
In the ringing chamber are peal boards, a First World War Roll of Honour, memorial plaques and photographs recording many ringers throughout the last century.
So to the present day, when we are fortunate to have currently seventeen tower members, the largest membership in the Chippenham Branch and among the largest in the Gloucester and Bristol Association. Many members from other towers and a few non-association members also ring with us reasonably regularly. We come from a large variety of backgrounds, are of mixed levels of ringing experience and our current members are aged from early teens to early seventies, ten being male and seven female.
Also note that ringers have always included a mix of regular worshippers and those with less direct connections with church life. Of the seventeen current members, nine are regular churchgoers. Three of these are members of other Anglican churches in the area and another three are Methodists. Bell-ringing Methodists are relatively unusual. The connecting factor in this instance is significant, however, as it dates back to the 1960s round of Anglican/Methodist talks at a time when the author’s school community was already alternating Sunday service attendance between the two denominations. It is interesting to note that under the climate of the new Anglican/Methodist covenant, it is current practice for candidates for confirmation from the same school community to be confirmed jointly as members of both churches’ communions.
Of course, the best way to know more about the current ringers is to come up and meet us. The bells are rung for practice night every Wednesday from 7:30–9:00pm (we hold a special Surprise practice on the first Wednesday of the month), and on Sunday mornings before morning service from 9:00–9:55am. We occasionally attempt a quarter peal each Sunday evening before Evensong. Better still, to enquire about joining us, contact the Tower Captain, Joanna Wheatland.
Bell ringers’ Association
St. Andrew’s is an affiliated church within The Gloucester & Bristol Diocesan Association of Church Bell Ringers, often shortened to ‘The G&B’.
‘The G&B’ was founded in 1878. It is reasonably unusual for a bell-ringing association to cover two present day dioceses, resulting in Joint Presidents (the Bishops of both Gloucester and Bristol) and nine Vice Presidents, including two further Bishops (Tewkesbury and Swindon), two cathedral deans and four archdeacons (Bristol, Malmesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester). All this becomes more understandable, however, after a quick look at the historical connections with neighbouring dioceses. It is widely known that, while retaining its 16th century patronage held by Christ Church in the Oxford diocese, prior to 1836 St. Andrew’s was in the Sarum (now Salisbury) diocese but, since 1897, has been in the diocese of Bristol. Possibly less well known, however, is that through ‘The G&B’ it also retains a connection with the period 1836 – 1897 when it was in the single diocese of ‘Gloucester and Bristol’.
Most bell-ringing associations or guilds are sub-divided into branches. In the case of the geographically large ‘G&B’ there are twelve, with the Chippenham branch taking in a small part of Gloucestershire between Tetbury and Marshfield as well as the areas around Malmesbury and Chippenham itself. Traditionally bell-ringing associations have concerned themselves mainly with towers with four or more bells hung for full-circle ringing. There are twenty-six such towers in the Chippenham branch but sadly some of these are unringable or hung for chiming only. The rule of thumb that towns and larger villages tend to have 8-bell rings, with smaller villages having six or fewer bells works quite well, with the six 8-bell towers being at Chippenham (St. Andrew’s and St. Paul’s), Malmesbury, Tetbury, Colerne and Marshfield. The notable exception is Corsham, a town with one of the fourteen 6-bell towers in the branch but, as if by way of compensation, it has a tenor of over 23 cwt [1171 Kg], making this the heaviest of all twenty-six rings. Therefore, the St. Andrew’s tenor is not the heaviest bell in the branch but is second equal with Brinkworth and Marshfield, which also have tenor bells weighing in the region of 18 cwt. As for quality of the rings, this is more subjective but it is commonly accepted that, in any competition for the best bells in the branch, Chippenham St. Andrew and Tetbury would be the front runners.
It is a requirement of the association that each branch should conduct its own affairs, each holding its own Annual General Meeting and electing officers on similar lines to the association itself. For certain activities, the role of the branch committee is to provide local liaison for association events, providing students and helpers for training days, teams for striking competitions and encouraging individual towers to enter an association level Tower of the Year Competition. Most of the organising is at branch level, including further training courses, local striking competitions, outings and various social events, and perhaps most important of all, regular branch practices.
Branch practices are especially important whenever they offer ringers the opportunity to practise a type or standard of ringing which might not be practical at their own weekly tower practice. Currently the arrangement in and around Chippenham is for a traditional branch practice, aimed across all levels of experience, to be rotated around the branch on a monthly basis. In addition, on the first Wednesday of each month the weekly practice at St. Andrew’s is devoted to advanced 8-bell ringing. This draws support from a wide area as well as from within the branch, while allowing other St. Andrew’s ringers an opportunity to join one of the many other Wednesday evening practices in the area.
Unfortunately, Chippenham branch has no 10- or 12-bell towers. For those wishing to extend their experience by ringing on these higher numbers, occasional practices, sometimes joint with the host tower, are held at Cirencester or Swindon in neighbouring ‘G&B’ branches, or Shrivenham, Trowbridge or Bathwick, in neighbouring Oxford, Salisbury and Bath & Wells Guilds or Associations respectively. There are also 10-bell towers at Edington Priory and Bath Abbey. The extra experience gained is particularly important when the branch accepts an annual invitation to ring for evensong on the 12 bells at Gloucester Cathedral.
This structure of association and branch allows the local ringers to further their art and achieve the first two objectives of the ‘G&B’, which are stated as: ‘To promote the ringing of bells for Divine Service’ and ‘To practise ringing to obtain a higher standard of ringing’, the third objective being: ‘To educate the public in the art and science of change ringing’.