Sunday 20 March 2016

Task 17: Ringing the bells of Maresfield Church, East Sussex

Over the years, one of the simple pleasures of living on the outskirts of Maresfield has been to hear the sound of the church bells drifting down along the valley towards our house. I would especially love hearing the bells on a Monday evening as the bell-ringers at St Bartholomew's held their weekly practice. Whatever else was going on in the world - terrorist activity, floods, tsunami, financial crashes - the bells would continue to ring out, serving as a gentle yet powerful reminder that life goes on. 

Then a couple of years ago I noticed how quiet Monday evenings had become. The bells continued to call people to church on a Sunday morning and to celebrate weddings on a Saturday afternoon. But that regular reassuring quality of the Monday evening practice was missing. So when it came to compiling my sixtyat60 list, I decided to include ringing bells at Maresfield Church. At the very least, I thought, this task would nudge me into finding out what was afoot in our local bell-ringing community. 

Two weeks ago, I began my quest to complete Task 17. My starting point was to contact the vicar of Maresfield and Nutley, Nick Cornell, who to my delight instantly signposted me to John, the tower correspondent of the Maresfield bell-ringers. So the bell-ringer team was still operational - hurrah! However......John explained that the bell-ringing band has been reduced to just 4 regular ringers - and since at least six ringers are required for 'a meaningful practice', Monday evenings are mostly not a goer. Hence the silence of the bells. 

Between us John and I agreed a 2-stage plan of action, with the caveat that I would ring a bell only with a lot of help from one of the band. As John says, it isn't safe for the uninitiated to be let loose on a bell weighing several hundredweight! Any images I had of a Quasimodo-like experience were put firmly to one side.

Ten days ago, Andrew (my ever-stalwart companion) and I drove to Fairwarp, a small village just a couple of miles from Maresfield, and made our way through a dark and slightly eerie graveyard to the back of Fairwarp Church. We climbed a set of narrow winding steps to the bell-ringing nerve centre halfway up the tower, where  John and the 7-strong Fairwarp bellringer team (age range from 10 to six score years and 10) were about to start their Thursday evening practice.  We were given a warm welcome, after which we were taken up the tower to be introduced to the star players of this blog - the very splendid set of eight bells.


Back in the bell-ringing room, the band commenced their practice, starting with simple rounds (ringing the bells in order from the smallest to the biggest), and then moving onto call changes (where the order of ringing each bell is changed every round). Andrew and I stood watching them in absolute awe. We could see that the ringers were working together in complete unison. They were watching one another closely to ensure that the 'pulse' was nice and regular - but their demeanor seemed incredibly relaxed and calm throughout. If anyone made a mistake, I didn't spot it, either through bell sound or bell-ringer grimace.

Then it was over to Andrew and me to have a go. Forget rounds and changes, this was just about trying to grasp the basic technique of pulling the rope correctly. As you can tell, I was taking the whole thing very seriously indeed, whilst Andrew appeared more chilled in his approach.  It's certainly a good workout for the shoulder and upper arm muscles - farewell to bingo wings Vivien?  


The band completed their practice by ringing a set of methods (pre-planned sequences), which sounded wonderful.  Now that we had a better understanding of what it felt like to ring a bell, we were even more bowled over by their skill. Then the bells were put back in their resting position, we said our farewells and we all made our way back through the churchyard. Stage 1 was duly completed. 

Last Sunday I moved into Stage 2 of the task in which I visited St Bartholomew's to observe the 4-strong band of Maresfield bell-ringers in action before the morning service.  John was there to greet me (now a familiar friendly face of course) together with Angela and Tony, and their tower captain Mike. I was immediately struck by the difference in bell-ringing settings between Fairwarp and Maresfield churches. There's no climbing up the bell tower at St Bartholomew's - as you can see, the team accesses the bell ropes at the end of the nave of the church, just a stone's throw from the congregation. 

The team prepared to ring the first round.....and off they went.

A set of fine-sounding changes later, interspersed with a couple of breather breaks (the St Bartholomew's bells are a long way up!), the Maresfield bell-ringers' session was over - and for me, Task 48 was in the can.  As we left the church we all agreed how brilliant it would be if the team were to recruit a little coterie of newbie bell-ringers, so that all eight bells could begin to ring out together again.  

So the million dollar question - did I find bell-ringing appealing? Sorry - I really must stop those irritating puns. Put it another way, will I be tempted to do further bell-ringing with the Maresfield band? Well, what Andrew and I have learnt is that bell-ringing is a very creative, skillful and satisfying team activity (I'm not surprised there's a push to make it an Olympic sport). For now I'm going to pause for thought whilst I focus attention on completing the rest of my sixtyat60 tasks.  But in the meantime I want to help raise awareness of the joys of bell-ringing and the lack of available ringers.  I've offered to submit a short article to our local parish magazine about my bell-ringing experience in the hope of encouraging new ringers to step forward and join the band. And if you're kind enough to be reading this latest post of mine, I'm letting you know too!

My thanks to Nick Cornell for his enthusiastic and warm response to my initial inquiry and to the Fairwarp and Maresfield bands for giving Andrew and me a great taster session in bell-ringing. And a very special thanks to John for his support of Task 17 - if his helpful and cheerful approach is representative of the bell-ringer community, then I think they're a fine group of people to pull ropes with!    

I'm doing the sixtyat60challenge to raise funds for Shooting Star Chase children's hospice care in memory of a special little girl called Thea Redford. 

For further information or to make a donation please visit my JustGiving page at

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