Almost everyone in Britain lives within hearing range of bells – ‘they provide the grand soundtrack to our historic moments, call out for our celebrations and toll sadly in empathy with our grief.’ On Easter Day churches and cathedrals around the country will ring out in celebration. Here in East Devon a visiting band will ring at Widworthy on Palm Sunday and it is hoped the bells will be rung at Farway and Cotleigh on Easter Day
Early missionaries used hand bells to call people to worship and by 750 A.D. bells were sufficiently common for the Archbishop of York to order priests to toll their bell at prescribed times. This was an age when there was very little man-made noise so the sound of bells was both majestic and scary at the same time. Also it could be pretty hazardous. In the middle ages it was believed that the sound of a bell could dispense thunder and a large number of soaking wet ringers were electrocuted as a result!
After the Reformation many churches began to rehang the bells that had been removed during the desecration of the monasteries. However, the cost of maintaining the bells and paying the ringers became a huge burden on parish finances.
In the late 17th century ringing became very fashionable with London aristocracy as it was thought to provide ‘physical exercise and intellectual stimulation’. In rural areas standards of behaviour continued to deteriorate with bell ringers described as ‘layabouts and drunks’ as the opportunity to earn a few extra shillings was soon transferred from ‘the church tower to the village inn’, which in Offwell’s case was just a few steps away at The Five Bells. In some church towers swearing, smoking and a barrel of beer was quite the norm. Some belfries became notorious as the meeting place of the village riff-raff: “…who indulged in heavy drinking and riotous behaviour”. A deep rift was created between ringers and clergy.
In the ‘History of Offwell Church and Parish’ many references are made to the uneasy relationship between the clergy and the ringers’ eagerness to ring at every opportunity: “In 1692 the sum of 3s was laid out for beare (beer) for the ringers when the French were routed at see… In 1694, when the Restoration was still very much within living memory, the accounts refer to it simply as ‘whinn the King come hom’, on which the ringers received an extra 2s for beer.”
After the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up King James 1 and Parliament on 5th November 1605 a new official ‘holy day’ was instituted and church bells were rung in the morning or evening as ringers were provided with candles as well as their rewards of bread and beer. John Gaius Copleston clearly disapproved, perhaps because of the anti-Catholic element of the celebration, and on 5th November 1822 the wardens’ accounts contain the item: “To the ringers 7s 6d and Mr. Copleston promised them 2/6 more if they no ring until New Year’s Day – 10s”. The offer was repeated the following year but old habits die hard and by the third year the accounts show a reversion to the old payment of 7s 6d on 5th November.
The cost of maintenance and the lack of ringers is still proving difficult for many parish churches to this day. At Widworthy the bells are only rung very occasionally due to the poor condition of the bells and bell tower; when they were rung for a wedding last August some of the ropes snapped. Fortunately, a Diocesan consultant visited the church recently and replaced the ropes but what is needed most desperately are new ringers in the Benefice. There may no longer be beer barrels and riotous behaviour in the bell towers but there is still the opportunity for physical exercise, intellectual stimulation and good company.
The Offwell Bell Captain, John Seymour, and ringer, John Tristram, welcome new ringers and if anyone is interested in giving it a try, particularly younger members of the community (minimum age 12), please contact John Tristram on (831404)
For those readers who like statistics here are just a few:
* The 4 bells at Northleigh are the only complete pre-Reformation ring of bells in Devon
* Exeter Cathedral, with 14 bells, has the second heaviest peal in the world, after Liverpool Cathedral.
* St. Paul’s Cathedral, with 12 bells, is the second largest ring of bells in the world hung for change ringing.
* A full peal involves approximately four hours of continuous ringing with at least 5,000 changes, every one different.
*The largest bell in the world, at 195 tonnes, is the Tsa Kolekol. Cast in Moscow in 1735 it was damaged by fire in 1737 and was never hung. It now stands on a platform in the Kremlin.
For more information on bell ringing go to:
www.ringingworld.co.uk Weekly journal for bell ringers since 1911
To hear John Lennon’s anti-war song ‘Imagine’ ring out on the bells of Exeter Cathedral to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in September 2011
‘A History of Offwell Church & Parish’ is available at £15 plus postage and packing from Debrett Ancestry Research Ltd, PO Box 379, Winchester SO23 9YQ