Ringing the bells for Armistice Day
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 November 2018
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As church bells toll to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, we talk to a South Yorkshire bell ringer about life in the tower
Elizabeth Stocker was not a typical teenager. While most 14-year-old girls were ringing their friends for three-hour conversations about the hot topic of the day (boys), she was ringing bells in churches at Ecclesfield, Bolsterstone, Darfield, Wortley and Bradfield.
She started with hand bells at Ecclesfield School but soon graduated to the bell ringing team at the village church, St Mary’s, which met every Tuesday night to practice, travelled the district throughout the week to join other troupes, rang at weddings on a Saturday for ‘£3 a rope’ and welcomed parishioners to services on a Sunday.
‘My teenage years were mad with bell ringing,’ she said. ‘I just loved it. In the school holidays, I’d even join working groups to travel to churches where the belfries were redundant or in a sad state of repair. We’d spend hours cleaning out pigeon mess, painting bell frames, oiling bearings, fitting new ropes and getting the bells back in working order.
‘Bellringing was a massive part of my life – and I had the blisters on my hands to prove it.’
Elizabeth, who now runs Nigel Tyas Ironwork with her husband at Bullhouse Mill on the outskirts of Millhouse Green in South Yorkshire, went on to join the bell ringers at All Saints Church in Darfield – a team that also included Barnsley poet Ian McMillan – in the 1980s, and continued ringing the changes at other churches from Tintagel in Cornwall to Durham Cathedral. At home in Yorkshire, she rang at Beverley Minster, Selby Abbey and was one of the first to ring six new bells in Filey.
Two tonne bells, weighing more than 20 times her own weight, held no fear for her. In fact, it was the smallest bell at Skelbrooke village, near Doncaster, that made her the most nervous. ‘Smaller bells on long ropes can be the most difficult to handle and that one was particularly flighty,’ she explained. Eventually, life inevitably got in the way and Elizabeth let go of the rope for 25 years, only returning in 2016 when a call went out for someone to help ring the Penistone bells on Christmas morning. That one festive morning soon became ‘the occasional Sunday’, which itself morphed into ‘I’m totally hooked again’.
‘I just love being in the bell tower,’ she said. ‘It’s such a timeless place and you really feel as though you can leave the stress of modern life behind. You climb the narrow, stone, spiral staircase to the ringing chamber and pull on ancient bells. The surroundings and technique have barely changed for centuries.’
Bell ringing is mentally stimulating and great for building up your physical strength. But, for Elizabeth, it’s mainly about the camaraderie of the tower. ‘Everyone is so friendly,’ she said. ‘You can go into almost any bell tower in the country and they’ll welcome you. Practice nights here in Penistone are great fun with lots of laughter.’
The town has a ring of eight bells, all recast and rehung in the 1920s, thanks to public donations in memory of the fallen in the First World War. It seems particularly apt, then, that Elizabeth and the rest of the ringing team are supporting Ringing Remembers, a campaign to recruit 1,400 new bell ringers to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and to commemorate the 1,400 bell ringers who died in the war.
Bells rang out across Britain on November 11th 1918, announcing the end of hostilities. Shortly after, the Central Council for Church Bell Ringers compiled a roll of honour of 1,077 men who had died, with more names added to the list later after further research.
‘Bells play a significant part in our lives and our national heritage,’ said Elizabeth. ‘They rang out to mark the end of the First World War and we ring them to mark all sorts of joyous family, community and national celebrations. I believe our bells are a national treasure and should be cherished and, above all, heard.’
The full circle change ringing carried out in our bell towers is very different to most other countries. While they tend to simply chime their bells with a clapper or hammer, English church bells are hung on wheels, allowing them to be raised and rotated through 360 degrees for a much more musical experience.
The names for our circle patterns have a certain musicality to them too, like Woodbine Delight, Merchants Return and Yorkshire Surprise Major.
Sadly, increasing numbers of bell towers are falling silent, with teams travelling for miles in an attempt to keep the chimes ringing out in their locality. That’s another reason why Elizabeth would like to see more ringers joining the ranks.
‘There’s something so rewarding about keeping such an old tradition going,’ she said. ‘I’d urge anyone to join a team, especially people like me who are thinking about returning to bell ringing after a long break.
‘I was rusty at first, of course, but once you’ve learned how to handle a bell, you never really forget. Some of the ringers I meet today, I first met when I started 38 years ago. I am eternally grateful to them for keeping bell ringing going during the time I’ve been away, so that I had the wonderful opportunity to pick up the rope again.’
Bells will be ringing out in churches across the country at 12.30pm on Sunday November 11th to mark the centenary of the Armistice. For details of the Ringing Remembers campaign, visit a100.cccbr.org.uk.
Harry Blanshard Wood was awarded the Victoria Cross in October 1918 – the only soldier from the East Riding of Yorkshire to receive the highest award for gallantry during World War One. Harry was awarded the VC for extreme bravery under fire during action in St Python, France. He is buried a Soldiers’ Corner in Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol.
But now exactly 100 years on, residents in Newton upon Derwent, the village where Harry was born, have marked his bravery with the unveiling of a special memorial plinth. A civic reception, including a special service and military parade, also took place on the village’s only street where residents were joined by his surviving relatives as well as the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, the Lord Lieutenant of the East Riding of Yorkshire Mrs Susan Cunliffe-Lister and representatives from the Scots Guards, the regiment to which Harry belonged. Officials from St Python where Harry’s brave actions saved the lives of many servicemen also made the journey to Yorkshire.
The event, which has been supported by a Heritage Lottery grant, has been four years in the planning and has been organised by Newton’s local history group. The group’s spokesperson, Margaret Horsley, said: ‘Until recently many people in the village were unaware of Harry’s existence. In this special commemorative year to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War we felt it was time Harry was properly recognised. This permanent memorial will ensure his bravery on the battlefield will be remembered by future generations.’