Word from Wormingford

25 March 2009

Ronald Blythe mourns the passing of a true servant of the church

MARKET DAY in the small Suffolk town. Brilliant March sunshine. Three times as many stalls as in my boyhood, and many times less noise. Instead of shouting and entertaining, the stallholders quietly cower below their awnings. Where do they all come from? Where do they disappear to? The great artist Thomas Gainsborough, a native lad, looks down on them from his plinth, brush in hand.

I visit a friend in the retirement home, where a cheerful soul asks if I can manage the stairs, compliments me on my “healthy face”, and tells me “we have three Maggies.” In the hot bedroom, my dear Maggie and I drink a little Chablis, and gossip. Say what you like, the retirement home is a strange business. Stay at home if you can. A few yards away, the River Stour shimmers coldly, and the oak buds fatten. A few yards away, all is as it was.

But not the town itself. The faint howl of the sawmill, the thump and splash of the flourmill, the rich reek of the maltings, the marvellous scent of the numerous family bakers and that of many other back-shop trades, the musk and ring of the blacksmith’s forge, the piteous cries coming from the cattle market are no more. But the celebrated Suffolk silk-weavers flourish. Thus this recessional quiet.

The local TV channel talks of unemployment. The country buses weave through the ancient streets like gaudy whales, and the car parks are bursting. Waitrose says: “Let us take you away from all this.” I take a rest in an unchanged old pub, and watch a different world go by.

Bernard has died. He was our life vice-president of the Essex Association of Change Ringers, and many other great things. He said the office for belfry use, which begins with: “Praise him upon the well-tuned cymbals. Praise him upon the loud cymbals.” He carried the processional cross before me at matins. He had what is known as “presence”, and just seeing him unlooping his rope in the tower brought stability to the service.


His spiritual home was the lovely church of St-Leonard-at-the-Hythe in Colchester, whose 1985 redundancy brought him to us; and what a gift!

And now he is gone. The Church of England has its true servants, its confident artists, men and women who know its ways, odd though they might seem to some. Last summer, Bernard sat in my garden, looking not quite himself, while his friends gathered greenery for a wedding.

It was he who must have made me an hon. ringer, though I have never pulled a rope. My contribution has been to provide a bit of bell-history, although I am pretty certain that Bernard knew

it all.

How shall we honour his passing? With what quarter peal? Who will now carry the psalm, the Benedicite in a thin congregation? He was the Master of the association, its property trustee, and a dozen other things. He rang in all the cathedrals. And when he took the chair after our annual ringers’ evensong, it was like the arrival of someone in authority, the chatter dying away, the respect mounting.

It was through him that I entered the esoteric world of bell-founding and -casting, handbells, and all

the successors of Stedman’s bell tunes.

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