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Living Heritage – An Appreciation

All Saints Parish Magazine – February 2010 (written by a non-ringer, for non-ringers)

John Harrison has written a book with this title and he mentioned it in a short article in last month’s church magazine but nothing he said did it justice. It is, for a start, beautifully printed, with tremendous appendices and index and the lively cover is just a small indication of the quality of the content and photographs inside.

On 25th November I went to the talk he gave on bell-ringing and of course he based the talk on the research he had done for the book. But in an hour or so only a fraction of what he had found out and knew could be revealed.

His interest is bell-ringing, and I am sure bell-ringers and anyone musical will be intrigued by the explanations he gives of ringing but I must confess that my interest was taken by the detailed history he uncovered and described of All Saints and Wokingham itself. For instance we know about the curfew which had been instituted in 1664 to ring morning and evening but John draws our attention to the Angelus rung at noon every weekday in 1914 “as a call to all to offer up a prayer for our sailors and soldiers”. We can appreciate today how moving this would be.

He gives a lively account of the development of the social and competitive side of bell-ringing and we note with dismay that many ringers seem to have spent much of their time in the ale houses. (Wokingham has always had a huge number of public-houses — a tradition obviously being followed by restaurants and coffee shops today). Apparently ringers rang when they felt like it with “scant regard for the church” and even gambled and drank in the tower! (It is possible that All Saints ringers didn’t behave like this).

Once reformed and as disciplined as they doubtless are today, our ringers went from strength to strength, adding more bells to the tower, determined not to be outdone by St Paul’s “superior modern ring of eight bells” while the mother church had a “200 year old, indifferent ring of six”. Their numbers included some distinguished ringers. A photograph of the grave of the Rev FE Robinson (page 55) shows a very short cedar tree nearby in contrast to the large tree we have there today; the Rev Gilbert Thurlow eventually became Dean of Gloucester Cathedral and the Rev Theresa (Terry) Scott who rang at All Saints from 1978-92 is now an Honorary Canon of Christchurch Cathedral Oxford.

But most of the bell-ringers were ordinary parishioners working in all kinds of trades and professions. For years they have served us at All Saints, welcoming us to ordinary services, celebrating weddings and other special occasions, marking the induction of a new Rector or an ordination to the priesthood. Only by reading John’s book will you begin to realise how great the contribution is that he and his like have made to the life of the church and begin to have some idea of the work and enthusiasm that goes into it.

As a postscript I might add that in the hamlet of Aubusson, Normandy, where we often stay, the sound of church bells is heard three times a day: at seven in the morning, at noon and again at seven in the evening. Impressive, yes? But whereas we at All Saints know, when we hear our bells, that devoted folk are communicating with us all by ringing them, in Aubusson the call to prayer comes from a tape. Something, better than nothing, but not as good.

Shirley Colwill

 Living Heritage by John Harrison – The story of 300 years of bells, ringing and bellringers at All Saints, Wokingham.

The Ringing World – 27 November 2009 (written by a ringer for ringers)

When John asked me if I would do him a favour I didn’t imagine it would be to write a review of this little work of scholarship and, although only 160 pages long it is crammed full of ideas, hypotheses and specialist information enough to gladden the heart of anyone with a specific interest in any aspect of bellringing.

John is not a historian and wouldn’t claim anything for himself which wasn’t justified but I think bell historians will be surprised at the ingenuity he has displayed in gleaning information about sometimes sparsely documented occasions, often with a wry smile and always with an obvious love for the subject.

I particularly liked the way in which ringing ‘jargon’ for the non-specialist was integrated fairly painlessly and simply into the narrative. One of John’s main aims was to make this book readable to the people of Wokingham who weren’t ringers. Many non-ringers have taken part in John’s various tower open days and talks which he delivers on a regular basis in the town and further afield and it is as much for them he writes this as for ringing historians. It is a book which every Wokingham dweller, with an interest in the local community, would be pleased to have on his bookshelf.

John invites you take a trip with him through the history of the bells and bell ringers, which in many ways parallels the history of the town itself and even the country with its fortunes and low points. The narrative is extremely readable and is an easy balance of the factual and anecdotal. This in itself would be sufficient to recommend itself to the reader but for the real enthusiasts there are several annexes which give detailed statistics in many areas concerning the Wokingham bands past and present.

Some of the detail branches out into somewhat recherché cameos on the subject of roof beams, bell inscriptions, clocks, brick-work and puddingstone as well as the more commonly found restorations and unique tower management set-ups. Historically, Wokingham All Saints has always had a Tower Foreman where others just have tower captains. All this and much more are explained in some depth along with the emergence of local ringing Associations and church reformation.

Quite a varied response is expected of the reader who wants to taste all aspects of the history of Wokingham All Saints and it appeals to the intelligent reader: it is very good value but not bed-time reading if you want to get the most out of it!

Bobbie May

Other books by John Harrison 

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