Tales from a bell tower

I can't say I have been much inclined, until now, to place bell ringing among the more adventurous, or even dangerous, of occupations. But then I hadn't given it much thought, it's true. A recent evening with members of the Towcester band of change ringers - my journalistic aim was to try to grasp something of the technicalities of this redoubtable English ethnic art - has, however, caused a certain revision of opinion on this score. Always eager for a good story, I pressed the ringers for any they might have. We were assembled, after an impressive rehearsal in the 15th-century church tower down the road, in the Saracen's Head (which used to be much visited by Charles Dickens, and which he used as the setting for an incident in ``The Pickwick Papers''). The chief claim to fame today of this inn on Watling Street (one of the roads the ancient Romans unwittingly bequeathed to the motorists of the 20th century) may be its eye-catching notices on the pavement. They are designed to announce lunch or dinner. When the latter is ready for customers, for instance, the word ``dinner'' is appropriately inserted in the middle of this notice. Likewise lunch. But in the time between these culinary events, when the kitchen staff is off duty, the space is simply left blank. The result (which has not been ignored by National Television) is a sign that reads: ``Saracen's Head Now Being Served.''

The bell ringers are a sociable lot. But while they are actually ringing, the intense concentration required by the process makes for a high seriousness. With some ringers, as their arms go rhythmically up and down, up and down, an expression suggesting bemused contemplation can settle over the features.

``Just imagine,'' one of them says, ``ringing for three hours! You can't even blow your nose.'' And three hours' ringing is an achievement expected of ringers of five or more bells who are worth their salt. It constitutes a ``full peal'' and involves more than 5,000 ``changes'' in the order of the notes. Even a quarter peal is a worthy aim, and more often attempted. ``Attempted'' is right, because sometimes ``awkward happenings'' can occur....

On one recent occasion, for instance, a young lad, just learning ``change ringing,'' managed to let his bell swing too far. It went over the top, broke the ash wood stay (which is meant to break so that worse damage isn't done to the bell, not to mention the bell tower and bell ringers below), and up went his rope. An experienced ringer would, at this point, have let go. He, however, did not. He hung on. He went up with the rope 15 feet, and only when he realized his knuckles were about to make contact with the ceiling beams did he consider it advisable to release his hold. Jon Lovell, the ringer who told me this story (and a hero by any standard), had been ringing next to the lad. By now, however, he had adroitly positioned himself under the boy to break his fall. The boy was unhurt - but something about the occurrence seems to have persuaded him to give up bell ringing.

This wasn't, however, the best story of the evening. The story of Bill's trousers beat it into a cocked hat. Bryan took up the tale.

``We were ringing a quarter-''

``It was a full peal,'' Janet corrects him. [Laughter.]

``Sorry, a peal,'' Bryan goes on, ``and there were six of us-''

``Eight of us,'' corrects Janet. [More laughter.]

`` - And we'd been ringing for about 20 minutes ... was it?''

``No! We'd been going for about an hour!'' [Most laughter.]

``Were you there, Bryan?'' asks Andrew mockingly.

``Anyway,'' persists Bryan manfully, not to be put off and surer of his facts from now on, ``Bill, who is one of our old ringers, was wearing braces [suspenders], with little clips on-''

``He's only 66,'' puts in Janet, for good measure.

``And'' [Bryan speaking louder], ``the rope flicked one of these clips. ... It came undone. And went `PING!' over his shoulder. ... Then a little while later, the other one went `PING!' ... and his trousers ... slowly descended to the ground-''

``Revealing his combinations!'' adds Janet, not without a certain glee.

``He was wearing long johns tucked into black silk socks!'' Bryan confirms, determined to salvage his punch line, ``by which time everyone was absolutely-''

``We tried to go on with the ringing'' [Janet, helplessly].

``Bill was somewhat embarrassed by this [now Andrew gets a word in], but said, `It's all right. Carry on.' He was worried about Janet, in case she was-''

``I was the only lady in the band.''

``We told the two boys to stop grinning and concentrate - this was their first attempt at a peal. ... I looked round at Richard (Bill's son), and his face was a study. He didn't know where to look ... and you try and concentrate for a few minutes longer ... then you just think about it and you start to crack up ... and Richard started cracking up-''

``I'd have been all right,'' said Janet, ``if it hadn't have been for looking at you two!

``-And it was quite obvious that we couldn't have continued with this peal. Even if we'd got to five minutes from the end, we'd still be likely to get fits of the giggles ... so-'' [with a sigh]-``we terminated it, gently.''

``And,'' said Janet, ``we brought it round, and all stood at our bells, let go of the ropes, and then collapsed in corners.''

The corner of the Saracen's Head collapsed again now, in uproarious memory of this fondly recounted tale. Clearly it has gone down in the annals of the Towcester Band. ``Poor Bill!''

In fact Bill didn't mind at all, or at least was sporting enough to pretend he didn't, when the event was subsequently retold in an issue of the weekly ringers' magazine, The Ringing World.

Nor did he give up ringing. Only the next time he turned up, he was wearing braces and a belt. After all, a 500-year-old bell tower on a winter's night is a very chilly place.

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