As you walk up the path to church on a Sunday morning or pass by on a Tuesday practice night you are welcomed by the sound of the bells. Staplehurst bells have rung out for almost every service for the last 200 years and most people probably take them for granted. Unlike other members of the church, for example the choir who are visible, our ringers go about their work unseen, though not unheard. So what goes on up in the tower? This article looks at the mystical world of bellringing.
Firstly - When we ring.
The bells are rung twice on a Sunday for services to "call the people to church", firstly before the 10am service and later in the day before the late afternoon or evening service. You will also hear us ring from 7.00pm until 9.15pm on a Tuesday evening; our practice night. The church bells also ring for weddings and funerals and at other times when we mark a special occasion such as a significant wedding anniversary, a birth or indeed a death. On these occasions we usually ring what is called a Quarter Peal or a Peal. Quarter Peals take around 45 minutes and a Peal can last over 3 hours and are a test of concentration and something of an achievement to aim for. We also ring for other special services throughout the year, for example we recently hosted a mid-week Deanery Confirmation service and we rang for that. We also ring on New Years Eve to "ring out the old year" and "ring in the new". This is normally preceded by a ringers party. We also have visitors from other towers ring our bells by prior arrangement. This is popular throughout the year as many ringers arrange tower outings to visit and experience other bells as we ourselves do when we visit other towers. If you take the Staplehurst Parish Magazine, keep an eye out for the monthly bell ringing report, where weddings and visiting ringing is normally advertised.
Being a ringer.
Perhaps the first point to make is that you don't have to be musical to be a ringer. Unlike singing or playing an instrument, where you have to accurately achieve a range of notes, each ringer is only ringing one bell which is tuned to a particular note. Therefore, provided you have a reasonable sense of rhythm and can ring your bell in the right place (which comes with practice), you could become a ringer. Secondly you don't need bulging biceps. Bellringing is a question of technique rather than strength and anyone who is reasonably fit and tall enough should have no problem.
The number of bells a church has can vary, generally between 5 and 12. Here at Staplehurst we have 10 bells and the "tunes" we ring on a Sunday are achieved by changing the order in which the bells are rung. There are 3,628,800 different combinations possible on our ten bells and to ring all of them would take nearly six years of continuous ringing. Don't worry; we don't intend to do that. We rang a peal for the farewell of our previous Rector, Gill Calver in January 2011 which managed to scrape in at 2 hours and 59 minutes. The band of ten ringers was mostly from Staplehurst with a few of our ringing friends from Maidstone joining us to mark the occasion. A similar peal, this time on six bells welcoming our new Rector, Silke Tetzlaff in November 2011, was quicker at 2 hours 36 minutes.
So what about those stalwarts who ring our bells every Sunday? We currently have 25 active ringers in our band, making it one of the largest resident bands in Kent. Most of our ringers actually live in the village and several are involved in other activities within the church or the village. Our youngest ringer is just ten years old and our oldest; well let's just say he has been retired for some time. We are fortunate that our band also includes some promising young ringers which is encouraging for the future. As well as students our band includes people from all walks of life including the world of banking and commerce, health service workers, teachers, our Parish Responsible Finance Officer and a fair number of retirees.
The Social Side.
Well, I hear you ask, is there more to life than just pulling a rope early on a Sunday morning! Indeed there is. Once a month we meet up with ringers from the other 30 or so churches in the Maidstone District which have bells. The different churches take it in turn to host these events, so it gives ringers a chance to ring on bells other than their own. Twice a year we have ringing competitions, the most recent of which we won. Like most hobbies ringing also has its social side. We nearly always adjourn to The Kings Head to quench our thirst after our Tuesday evening practice. Each summer we have an outing where we spend a day ringing at churches in another part of the south east and of course enjoying a pub lunch. Some of our more fanatical ringers even go on ringing holidays. Add to that Barn Dances, Quiz Evenings and Barbecues and you can see why ringing can easily become a way of life!
I hope this has given you an insight into what ringing at Staplehurst is all about. If it has whetted your appetite why not pop up to the tower on our Tuesday practice night from 7.30pm onwards to find out more. But be warned - bellringing can become addictive!
All Saints Staplehurst Tower Secretary - Roy Barclay