Ringing for Remembrance Sunday

As you may have deduced, I am a church bellringer of many years’ standing. And as was, of course, Remembrance Sunday very recently, the ringers at our tower met to ring for this special day.

It’s traditional to ring in a manner known as “half muffled”. What happens, is that a leather pad or “muffle” is attached to one side of the clapper, so that when that side of the clapper strikes the bell at the end of its swing, the sound made is muffled and therefore somewhat fainter than the strike from the other side of the clapper. This makes for a very mellifluous sound which can be really rather soporific. I love ringing half-muffled as it tends to feel much more rhythmic than usual and is almost hypnotic. A greater degree of concentration than usual is needed so you don’t nod off!

The YouTube clip below is from Westminster Abbey so you can have a chance to hear some half-muffled ringing. It’s rather good!

In the parish where I ring, there is a ceremony of remembrance at the war memorial, situated halfway between two villages. Although the church is not close to the memorial, we tend to ring after the conclusion of the two minutes’ silence, generally for about half an hour. We ring half-muffled to mark the difference from usual Sunday service ringing. I always find it a solemn occasion but really worthwhile. I feel it’s really important that we all remember and honour those who gave their lives for their country and ringing the bells half-muffled on Remembrance Sunday is my small contribution.

Ringing at this time of year in my tower brings certain challenges. The main structure of the tower consists of wooden beams and these are home to many flies over the summer. But as soon as the weather starts getting colder, and particularly when we begin to get frosts, they start dropping, well, like flies! You walk up the wooden spiral staircase with steps smothered in dead and dying flies – with the occasional wasp for a spot of variety – and then in the ringing room, there’s a layer of them all over the carpet and window ledge. Each week has to start with a major vacuuming session before we can get round to the business at hand. Then when you are ringing, the odd dead, or dying fly, drops out of the beams to land on your head, hair, or if very unlucky, down your T-shirt. It makes for a very itchy evening.

Some years, we come up the stairs to ring to find we have acquired a swarm of ladybirds. Hundreds and hundreds of them clustered on the wall around the window. It’s quite a sight to behold. And then one day, they’ve gone.

Thinking about other inhabitants of our tower, we have had the odd visit from a murine friend. One ringer suddenly spotted a small, whiskery face peeping out from underneath the clock casing but it took fright and scuttled off. We have to be careful and make sure all sweetie wrappers (well, you need an energy boost of a practice night) are firmly in the closed bin, otherwise we’ll find a pile of well chewed papers on our next visit.

We have, just the once, had the traditional “bat in the belfry”. On arrival, it was spotted clinging to the ladder but it soon made a quick exit and we’ve never seen it since. A robin once greeted us one Sunday morning but very sensibly found the window we opened up for it and headed out into the wide blue yonder.

This year, we decided to leave the bells half-muffled until after our practice night ringing and it certainly brought a new dimension to the evening’s ringing. Ringing like this highlights every little mistake or trip in the ringing and so can be a boon to those who find it difficult to hear their own bell. Back to usual next week. Here’s hoping we have enough people available to ensure we don’t have to cancel our practice.

Waist whittling holiday games

Thinking about holidays (the Paris and Caribbean reflections from my previous post brought about these musings), I tried a new sport this summer.

It has a holiday connexion as myself and the partner in crime were staying in a house in Amboise in the Loire valley. Usually, one of the joys of holidaying in France is eating outside on whatever patio, terrace or decking the holiday accommodation possesses. It’s something the British don’t routinely do at home – unless they are manic barbecue fiends – probably due to having to rush round to go to work, do the shopping, organize the kids or whatever. So on a French holiday, there always seems to be the time to take the baked breakfast goods, the fresh fruit juice and the pot of tea outside to munch and sip gently while planning what relaxed, laid back activities the day may hold. And in the evening, it’s no hardship to drag your meal outside to eat in the evening sun accompanied by a chilled glass or two of Cabernet d’Anjou.

Amboise is beautiful when the sun shines

Downtown Amboise, a gorgeous setting on a sunny day.

I’m transported there just thinking of it. I can almost hear the crickets. So my expectations for the Loire visit were set. Meals on the terrace or possibly the balcony, watching the setting sun. Hmm. Well. It rained pretty much every day. I seem to recall just two occasions when we sat outside after it had dried up enough to sit on the balcony with a drink. But otherwise, it was eat indoors or risk a soggy baguette!

With the weather as it was and not being rugged, outdoor types, outside activity was a bit limited and tended to involve taking the car out. Which in itself was a bit of a challenge as the electric gates opened onto a one-way, narrow, street busy with tourists visiting Leonardo da Vinci’s final residence, Clos Lucé, at the end of the road. Hardier than us, obviously, or more likely members of a coach party on a schedule. That week, the town seemed full of Russian and German visitors.

We did venture forth on our very first morning with waterproof jackets (as it turned out, more what you might call “shower proof”) and waxed hats to visit the superb Sunday market. Umbrellas were left behind reluctantly as we felt that they constituted a bit of a hazard in the setting of a busy market with overhanging canopies. Several purchases were made including spit-roasted chicken, fresh fruit and naturally some local cheese. By the time we had trekked back to base, we were drenched as the rain had been of the stair-rod variety. Luckily the hot chicken had survived and made an extremely tasty lunch with some fresh baguette which had been secreted away in a waterproof rucksack.

After lunch we debated what to do. After the morning’s drowned rat impersonations, there was little appetite to venture out again so the afternoon looked like a reading and snoozing fest. But then we remembered the sous sol shown to us by our welcomer the day before. And so it came to pass that we plodded our way downstairs to investigate the delights of the games room.

At the far end of this large room stood a table tennis table along with an array of ping pong balls and bats. So instead of a lazy Sunday afternoon, it was Game On! Now, not being little Miss Sporty and one who has never played table tennis before, I can tell you it’s extremely good for your waist line. And not in the way you might think. Yes, there was dashing about to try and hit the ball but the main activity to promote waistline whittling was the incessant bending over to retrieve the ball having failed quite brilliantly to hit it back over the net. So the game went rather like this: serve (kind of), dodge the return, trot after the ball, bend to retrieve it from under a chair, then back to my side of the table. Repeat until time for tea.

As the weather continued with its unfriendly theme throughout the week, table tennis became an afternoon ritual and as the week went on, I progressed to returning the ball and even managed to score some points. It’s amazing how it’s so much easier to like something when you are not completely rubbish at it. Then the delusions creep in. I’m sure I could be good at this with a bit of practice, look how much I’ve improved in a week! So the partner in crime put paid to that by sending a few balls across the table at such a speed I’m sure they broke the sound barrier. That was me firmly put in my place. Still, a girl can dream!

Not an adventurous person …

I am so not an adventurous person. No siree, no adrenaline rushes for me. I am not great with heights so any activity demanding I look down from on high is ruled out, pretty much instantly. Climbing to the top of a church tower is my usual limit.

I have walked up the Eiffel Tower in Paris – the queues for the lifts were way too long – and it was pretty hairy! The staircase is fine but you can see out across Paris as you climb ever higher and it seems you are only separated from the ground by a bit of wire. Okay, it’s pretty sturdy, but when you don’t like heights, it can seem jolly flimsy to the mind. I mounted those stairs gripping the central hand rail like a mother afraid of losing her child in a crowd. I positively ran (and I don’t do running) up the stairs between landings so I could cling to the railing to keep me safe. Woe betide anyone coming down who wanted to use the hand rail!

Thankfully you are only allowed to walk up to the second level and can take the lift up to the top one. I’m not sure my legs wouldn’t have given out part way up, otherwise. Luckily for me, my visit was at the end of the day so in order to speed up the closing process, everyone had to go down in the lift rather than walk. Quel dommage! Much quicker, much less traumatic, kinder to my knees.

I got to thinking about heights, adrenaline rushes and things through a colleague at work. We were waiting for the other participants to turn up to a meeting so we chatted about his recent holiday. It turns out he and his family had been to Wales and had tried out the UK’s longest zip wire. A zip wire of a mile long where you reach speeds of at least 70 miles per hour. Oh and for good measure, you tackle it lying down head first! So not me!

I looked the place up on YouTube later. As this clip shows, the location has history but you get to see just how fast it can be. I can see why my Blue Peter presenter application came to nothing!

I have a friend who used to sail dinghies in her youth and she keeps promising (threatening?) to take me out sailing one day. So far, I’ve more or less managed to escape. As you’re no doubt working out for yourselves, I don’t do exciting. The problem with sailing as I see it is that it takes place on a surface which goes up and down, up and down. And then for a bit of variety, down and up.

Many years ago I went across to the Isle of Wight by catamaran. Which dropped like a stone into the troughs between waves. A sudden lurch and plummet which left the stomach behind such that by the time it caught up, we were at the top of the wave again. Repeat ad nauseam. Well, hopefully not too much of the nauseam.

I did let this friend take me out on a Hobie in the Caribbean. I have to say it didn’t go too badly. Although I’m not sure I was given all the relevant information before venturing forth. I managed to climb on board and clung hold with a vice-like grip, prepared to hang on in there until the end of the ride. So when I was told I’d have to haul myself across the trampoline to the other side so we could turn round (jibe I think it’s called) I was somewhat dismayed. It was only the thought of continuing indefinitely out into the wide blue yonder that made me summon my courage and throw myself across the boat at the relevant command.

Ah yes, the trampoline. This is the bit you can see the sea through. The bit you have to crawl across just above the waves below (well, crawling was how I did it) to get to the other side. I kind of prefer something solid beneath me, something I can’t see through.

It’s the same with staircases. I am not a fan of the open-tread staircase, particularly when you get to more than a few steps off bottom. Why on earth does anyone want to see through the gaps back down to the floor you’ve just left? It’s just a disaster waiting to happen.

Anyway, that brings me full circle back to the Eiffel Tower where next time, I’ll wait patiently with everyone else for the lifts.

Train Your Brain by Playing the World’s Loudest Musical Instrument

You could join people like  Alan TitchmarshVictoria Wood, and Jo Brand in a fascinating and extremely sociable hobby which really keeps the brain active and helps to stave off those “senior moments”.

So why not try your hand at bellringing?  Not only are church bells the world’s loudest musical instrument, it’s not often you get to use extremely expensive equipment completely free!  You don’t need to be particularly fit – so long as you can stand on your own feet for a few minutes and move your arms, that’s all you need.  A sense of rhythm and / or the ability to see and learn patterns would be an advantage but are by no means required.  As Jo Brand pointed out, it’s also not necessary to be a church goer – in fact in our band only a quarter of the ringers ever stay for the church service.

Bellringing brings a degree of physical activity together with a chance to exercise your brain.  The first step is to learn how to handle a bell.  Your instructor will help you do this in a series of stages, so that you build incrementally on the skill learned to date.  It’s not particularly difficult but like learning any new activity, it requires concentration and practice.  If you remember back to when you first started to drive, it’s rather like learning how to get the feeling just right on the clutch.  With ringing you need to get a feel for the bell and unlike many activities, you can’t exactly practice this one at home!

Once you’ve acquired the physical bell handling skills, it will be time to move on to learning to ring with others.  Up until this point most instructors tend to keep a beginner on their own, so that they can concentrate on building up the handling skills without worrying about other ringers.  Now, however, you’ll start to ring with the band and have to adjust your timing so that your bell strikes in the right place.  It’s now all about teamwork.

The next step will be a big one, although your trainer will help you through it in smaller stages.  This  is where you start to learn how to ring methods.  Methods aren’t tunes as they are based on patterns so you will gradually work your way up to learning a pattern and then making your bell ring in the right place every time the clapper strikes to bring that pattern to life.  This is the stage which may make you feel like you are having to rub your tummy and pat your head simultaneously.  Don’t worry though, all your fellow ringers have been through it at some point and will be helpful and encouraging as you make progress.

Method ringing is great for the brain.  You’ll need to memorize the pattern of each method away from the tower, repeating it to yourself over and over again until it flows naturally in your mind.  You’ll then have to remember this and recite it to yourself whilst ringing the bell, controlling it so you can ring faster or slower to make it sound in the right place in the pattern.  This does get easier with practice, particularly when you can handle your bell smoothly on “automatic pilot” thus leaving thinking space for your method ringing.

With bellringing, the number of challenges is pretty well unlimited.  Once you’ve learned to ring competently on 5 or 6 bells, you can move on to 8 or 10 and then up to 12.  Learning a 12 bell method is a whole new experience and will definitely test your memory!

Ringing is a very sociable activity and very cross-generational.  Lots of towers have social activities outside of ringing, and not all of these involve visiting the pub after practice is over. I have been on several bellringing focused holidays, visiting Eire, the Isle of Wight and many areas of mainland UK too.  Ringing is something you can do without needing a partner or any prior knowledge.  The skills will be taught to you – all you have to do is be willing to come to practice sessions and learn.  It’s really easy to join a band of ringers – many bands are short-handed and are looking for new recruits.  To find a band of ringers near you, as a starting point have a look on the website of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers.  Or, of course, you can always pop along to your local practice night when you hear the bells begin to ring and say you’re interested in having a go.  Some towers hold open days or evenings thus giving people a chance to see what ringing entails and even to have a go themselves.

It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s sociable, it’s good for your memory, so go on, give it a whirl!