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Interview: Vicki Chapman, deputy president, Central Council of Church Bell Ringers

03 May 2024

‘My advice: if you don’t like the sound of bells, don’t move near a church. They were there first’

Dad learned to ring as a teenager, and taught me to ring when I was 11. Both my older sisters, one of their husbands, my husband, my daughter, my step-daughter, and her husband all ring.

You don’t have to be mathematical at all: goodness knows, I’m not! Same for arms of steel. In fact, my arms are my weakest muscles. It’s more to do with rhythm. The bell will move through physics and with some encouragement: it’s more to do with co-ordination and good style.

You do need to concentrate, especially if you’re new to it, or ringing for an important occasion. If you’re interested in the mechanics, learning to maintain bells and their fittings is great.

The Central Council [of Church Bell Ringers (CCCBR)] is the representative body, founded in 1891, for all who ring bells in the English tradition with rope and wheel. We represent 65 affiliated societies in the British Isles and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, South Africa, and Italy.

The addition of a wheel and the stay and slider mechanism means the bell doesn’t quite fully rotate through 360º. At some point, the idea of ringing in sequence took hold; so a typical performance would be to raise the bells, ring for a period, and then lower them, probably ringing what we now call “rounds”, sounding the bells in turn down the scale.

Change-ringing — systematically varying the order of the sequence — probably began in the late 16th or early 17th century. The phrase “ring the changes” entered the language, and appeared in a sermon in 1614. It spread from England to other parts of the English-speaking world.

Why did it only evolve and thrive here? Forms of full-circle ringing evolved in Northern Italy, but not change ringing. Carillons emerged in the Netherlands around the same time as change ringing in England, and they gradually spread to other European countries.

The use of tower bells for Christian worship probably reached Britain in the eighth century, having spread from Italy at least 300 years earlier. As churches acquired more than one bell, they’d chime different combinations of bells to signal the different services. Churches played a big role in secular life, too. The bells happened to be in the church, but they also rang curfews and announced fairs.

The Reformation might have extinguished ringing, but its secular role helped to preserve it. Ringers had become largely independent of the church, and they formed their own organisations.

Many churches don’t have enough bells to be rung full circle to established methods. Some may only have one or two bells; so chiming them or using a hammer to activate them is OK, and better than blasting out a recording.

If a church does have a full set of full-circle bells, they should be heard. They’re the voice of the church; they’re what call people to worship and unite church and community.

There’s still the odd complainant — usually someone who’s moved into an area because it’s a lovely village, or bought a second home, then realised the bells at the local church ring early on a Sunday morning, and on practice night. We try to show them what it’s all about. Some towers have added shutters, which slightly quieten the sound. Others have installed simulators which use electronics to make the bell quiet outside but the ringers inside can hear what’s happening through a computer. Of course, on Sundays and special occasions, we’d want the bells rung loud and proud. My advice: if you don’t like the sound of bells, don’t move near a church. They were there first.

Quite often ringers don’t stay to the service because they are needed to ring elsewhere. I’d point out that we don’t see the clergy in the tower, either. It works both ways.

Some people ring lots of complicated methods, and ring lots of peals (longer length pieces of ringing). Some spend time teaching and supporting others. Others support their local band, week in, week out. They may not be the best ringers, but without them the bells wouldn’t be rung.

With increasing numbers of church closures, some bells become unavailable. It’s a real shame. Ringing bells could still help bring in the community, even if the church is used for other purposes. The English soundscape is lost — and also a heritage skill, a leveller activity, a family activity, something for young people to get involved in that doesn’t cost much, the chance to connect with others, to visit beautiful church buildings anywhere, and to see hidden parts of them.

I was born and brought up in Chelmsford, the youngest of four. When I was 18, I moved to Ipswich, and was determined to give up ringing. But I heard the bells in the town centre on a Saturday afternoon, guessed they were ringing for a wedding and found myself at the foot of the stairs waiting for the ringers to come out. I got sucked straight into ringing the next day. I moved back to Chelmsford a couple of years later, and picked up where I’d left off.

I used to organise a three-day ringing course over the Easter holidays for over 70 students, with 120-plus helpers and tutors. I was the project lead for the “Ringing Remembers” campaign in 2017/18, where we recruited over 3000 new ringers to mark the centenary of Armistice Day. I also worked with Buckingham Palace and Lambeth Palace in the bell-ringing arrangements for the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and the Coronation of the King, with the “Ring for the King” campaign [News, 28 April 2023].

I’m a project manager for the local NHS Trust. I have ringing practice at Chelmsford Cathedral on a Monday evening, learners’ practice there again on Tuesday evening, usually, a CCCBR meeting on Wednesday evenings, and I support other local towers throughout the week. At weekends, I’m either at training days or specific practices. I work a condensed week; so Friday is my non-working day where I catch up with the ringing admin and meetings. Then there’s Sunday-service ringing, of course.

I went to Girls’ Brigade and Sunday school, but got very disillusioned. Being a Christian is about actions, not words. Many people there said the right things, but, when it came down to someone needing practical help, they were nowhere to be seen.

I’m not a churchgoer. My husband attends communion on his own, now. I used to go with him between ringing for the two morning services, because I knew it was important to him, but, since Covid, I didn’t want to do that any more. It seemed somewhat hypocritical.

Rudeness, incivility, inequality make me angry.

Seeing my daughter makes me happiest, or hearing her voice.

When you become a ringer, you hear bells everywhere: on the TV or radio or on film. My husband and I were watching The Great Gatsby, and there’s a scene in a New York hotel where we could just hear bells in the background. We both looked at each other and said “No!” — no bells in 1920s New York.

Recently I’ve been tracking my heart rate, and it definitely goes down when I’m ringing.

The resourcefulness of people gives me hope. There are so many young ringers’ groups now, and a National Youth Contest. It’s great to see young people develop social skills, leadership skills, and having a great time with people of all ages. Ringing crosses all boundaries.

I don’t pray in the traditional sense. I wish people didn’t fight, and were more tolerant of others with different values and beliefs.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the wealthiest and shrewdest women of the Middle Ages.


Vicki Chapman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Bell Sunday is on 12 May; cccbr.org.uk/news

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