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 Out from under the bushel

Most people who live in England take the sound of English style ringing for granted, as part of the fabric of our heritage. Yet few of them have any idea of what is behind it – the technology, the skills, the people or the traditions. The public perception of ringers and ringing could not be much further from reality. Is it any wonder that (apart from a minority who have some ringing connection) we are widely misunderstood, we have too few recruits, and we are the butt of jokes about being taken up by the rope? Of course there are tower open days, and occasional talks by ringers to non ringers, but not enough to make a serious dent in the sea of public ignorance.

Wokingham was pretty much like anywhere else in this respect, but over the last few years, several threads came together, almost by coincidence, to start a change. The restoration project at All Saints became embedded in a wider project called ‘Celebrating Community’, the ingredients for which had been brewing for a while. The church needed a new hall, and realising that its existing halls were used more by organisations outside the church than within, we focused it on the community’s needs. Also we needed to do something about the state of the churchyard, and this too was seen as an asset that could be developed as a community resource. The church is in an affluent town, but sitting on the edge of one of its rougher estates. A couple of years earlier, when the curate’s post became vacant, the church had appointed a community priest, to help develop outreach, and as part of a general shuffle of clergy housing, she lived in the middle of this estate. She kicked off a lot of community facing initiatives, including a team that visited local schools.

In 2002, she asked me to talk about ringing to one of the infant schools. The talk went well. I used a large cardboard ‘half ton bell’  and some of the sounds and pictures that I had prepared for a 5 minute talk on bell music in a fund raising concert a few moths earlier (with the language scaled down for 7 year olds). Eight of the children rang a couple of rounds on handbells, though all would have liked to.

At our AGM in January 2004, someone suggested that we ought to do more school talks, and somehow – triggered partly by the fact that we were in a community project, and partly by the reactions of non-ringers who had spoken to me after seeing me on TV in the Midsomer Murders programme ‘Ring out your Dead ’ – I made the mental leap of suggesting that we ought also to offer talks to other community organisations. I had no idea how many or how few organisations there were, but it seemed a good idea at the time. Someone else volunteered to do the leg work of tracking them all down and contacting them, which made sure the idea got off the ground, and left me to do the talks and organise the tower visits. The initial trawl produced nearly forty local organisations, many of whom expressed interest in a talk or a visit – so we were on!

Most people asked for 45 minutes but some wanted less and others significantly more. I prepared a modular talk, with sections on: myths about ringers, how ringing works, evolution of ringing, ringing music, making bells, public visibility (Millennium, Ring in 2000, Midsomer Murders), the Wokingham project, and a funny story with which to end. I varied the depth to suit the audience, for example for the local history group I greatly expanded the historical section. I opted for using overhead transparencies. Many organisations have access to an overhead projector, which would save me the need to take one, and it would be simpler and more reliable than a high-tech computer based solution. For the slides, I used pictures and diagrams only – no bullet lists, and no text other than the odd label. For many talks I used a portable audio player to explain about bell ‘music’, with the tape that I had made for the concert.

I used a few props. I had a model bell and a rope (cut off above the sally). I took a couple of local interest items: a bronze trophy of a bell and ringers that I cast some years ago, and a tee shirt with the Wokingham Bellfoundry lion symbol, that we used to wear for striking competitions in the mid ’80s. Some venues had a video player, so I used snippets from a couple of ringing videos too.

In the first 12 months, we generated two tower visits (before the bells came out) and 15 talks, involving nearly 400 people, and there are more events planned. Half were during the day, but as I work from home (and now part time) I can easily fit them in. The groups ranged from mothers of young children to retirement groups, Beavers to U3A, Rotarians, Inner Wheel, Probus, local history groups and members of other denominations. All the events were well received. In one case, the organiser told me afterwards that when she booked it she had no idea of what a talk on bellringing would be like. In another, a member of the audience said how much she had enjoyed it, but that before she came, she thought bellringing would be a boring topic. Many audiences extended the sessions beyond the allotted time by asking lots of questions. It is interesting that from a presenter’s perspective, the shortest talks were the more demanding – speaking after dinner to a room full of high-powered, time-limited people, with no slides, and minimal props to lean on. They liked it though, and in one case it led immediately to another similar invitation.

What have we achieved? We didn’t aim to make money, though donations so far amount to nearly £250. Nor did we see it as a recruiting drive, though you never know... We did it because we felt that we had something worthwhile and interesting to offer to the community. We are responsible for what from a non church-goer’s viewpoint, is one of the more interesting things in a church – if only they knew about it. Although this is a locally focused initiative, I feel it also helps in a very small way to raise public awareness of ringing in general, something that if it could be repeated more widely would be of benefit to the Exercise – and that is the main point of this article.

Before we started, we did not realise how well received the talks and visits would be, nor how (relatively) easy it would be to do them. Giving talks on ringing, and hosting tower visits are not new, but I am not aware of them being promoted as pro-actively as we have tried to do. I am sure there is scope for doing something similar in many other areas. The existence of the local project helped to provide the spark in our case, but with hindsight I don’t think it is an essential ingredient. Bells and ringing represent a fascinating topic whether or not there is a local restoration in progress. You need someone to to make the contacts, and you need one or more people willing to prepare material and do the talking, but there should be such ringers in most areas.

So why not consider doing what we did? Bring your light out from under the bushel. Try to spread an enlightened view of ringing and ringers to as many people as possible within your community. If our experience is anything to go by, you will find it very rewarding, both for you and for your audiences.

John Harrison – All Saints, Wokingham, April 2005

All Saints Wokingham

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