Mancroft Ringing Discovery Centre is located in Norwich, within the church of St Peter Mancroft and is a purpose-built teaching centre with eight dumb bells linked to computers. It holds an abundance of teaching material and resources, as well as a wealth of historical material accessible.
Nikki Thomas is employed as the Centre’s Manager. She is employed for 20 hours per week and while at first glance it may seem inappropriate for someone to be nominated for carrying out a role they are paid for, it is in fact the case that Nikki is being nominated for her inspiring leadership which she brings to this role because of her outstanding personal qualities and vision, and not because she is carrying out tasks set by her employer. She is also an outstandingly loyal and dedicated ringer, who prioritises other people’s achievements and goals in her whole ringing life.
As the Centre’s manager, Nikki does excellent work, always giving 100% to the job. She provides excellent leadership in that role. But on a 20 hr/week contract, the success and popularity of the Centre is down to all the extra things Nikki does and her development of a high performing volunteer team drawn from local ringers.
The Centre runs an active programme of teaching sessions and events, covering all of the Learning the Ropes Levels one to five (both method ringing and advanced call changes), as well as extending opportunities to other ringers wishing to pursue other goals, for example the Ringing World Pathways, Project Pickled Egg and handbell ringing. Bell handling and focused bespoke sessions are also offered, as well as tuition on using technology to aid ringing progress.
Sessions are held at various times of the week to enable full accessibility by ringers, so there are lunchtime sessions, evening and weekend sessions. There is a core regular programme of Tuesday and Thursday lunchtimes, Junior ringing and School Groups on Wednesdays, and Friday Use the Simulator for individual practice, as well as a monthly Surprise Major practice. In addition one-off sessions are arranged and there are usually several of these every week.
Away from MRDC, which is only one part of Nikki’s busy ringing life, she encourages and supports other ringers whether in the tower or on handbells. She is active in her local Association, her own tower and at St Peter Mancroft where she is also part of that band. She is active in the Association of Ringing Teachers, and has promoted ringing in all sorts of ways such as giving talks, running Open Heritage Days as well as numerous outings and events.
At MRDC, 229 sessions have been held, and a total number of attendees is 5,109 although this number includes returning/regular attendees. However, what this amounts to is 3,141 hours of volunteer time. There are typically 5 students per session and a minimum of 4 helpers which includes the main tutor for the session. The Junior Ringers group has a core of 12 young ringers and the separate School Group currently has 8, again these are supported by a minimum of 2 helpers. The age profile of attendees ranges from 6 through each decade up to 70+.
One of the Central Council’s Strategic Priorities is to address barriers to progress in ringing. This objective is shared by MRDC but it is Nikki’s leadership of the volunteer team which makes this happen at every level of ringing. The team which she has nurtured and developed is exemplified by the personal contributions of many dedicated individuals which allow ringers to progress, to remove barriers, and to inspire growth and positivity. All of this has a significant impact on ringing, not just in Norwich and Norfolk, but in the region. The Volunteer Team is a wide and varied group based around a core team of 12-14 people who teach/help/support/attend on a weekly basis.
A key attribute of the Volunteer Team is that it is made up from a wide range of ringers who are not exclusively Mancroft ringers or from Norwich. Nikki makes everyone welcome and this fosters a welcoming atmosphere and counteracts the unfortunate effects of ringing being focused around a single tower. Members of the Volunteer Team carry out a wide range of roles, from direct teaching to ‘behind the scenes’ work such as maintenance, promotion and fundraising. Nikki’s leadership ensures that they share a common goal and the same priorities of mutual respect for the teacher and student, great loyalty to the Centre of which they feel extremely proud and a willingness to learn and adapt. Nikki runs the Centre in a constructive and consensual way, and each volunteer feels valued and able to contribute positively to the teaching sessions. Anyone who has a good idea is encouraged to try and implement it, whether it be a useful exercise, a different approach to a persistent handling problem or to achieve a goal.
There have been many positive achievements:
Away from MRDC, Nikki has been instrumental in introducing many people to the art of handbell ringing. In particular she has been part of a group which has achieved first quarter peals in Plain Bob Minor and Major, St Clements’, Kent and Oxford Treble Bob and most notably Stedman Triples, which was conducted by the newest ringer in the group. This took much dedication and teamwork but also leadership to keep the project alive and focused, and ultimately successful. It is a measure of her contribution that a group of people she had nurtured rang a handbell quarter as a tribute to her.
Nikki is always looking at new ideas and thinking about how old problems can have new solutions. For example, Surprise Major and the Pickled Egg practices have been established with an open and welcoming atmosphere. These started as a ‘thank you’ to volunteers for their support and have now developed into regular sessions, enabling focused practice and quarter peals with a solid band, similar to the idea behind the ‘Cast of a Thousand’. Nikki is very sensitive to the needs of her volunteers and never takes them for granted or undervalues them. For her, everyone is important and she will do all she can to help each individual reach their goal, whatever that may be.
Nikki also plays her part with the Norwich Diocesan Association, for whom she is General Secretary. The Norwich Diocesan Association’s AGM in 2022 included a Foundation Skills session at two of the towers prior to the meeting, and the Junior Ringers met in the morning at a suitable tower. These events were open to all members of the NDA and added a new way of meeting up and ringing than the traditional tower grab before the AGM. These innovations all proved to be very popular.
There has been a beneficial effect on other towers. Thanks to the inspiring leadership of Nikki, local practices have been run making much greater use of techniques from M1 and M2 and Learning the Ropes, and introducing focus practices outside of regular practice nights. These include South Walsham, Ranworth, Wroxham, Holt, Upper Sheringham, and Reedham. These towers regularly visit MRDC either as group visits or individuals from the towers attending practice. The learners who attend the sessions enjoy having a more focused style of teaching rather than a quick go at Plain Hunt once a week. Quality teaching addressing handling faults is also a benefit which is appreciated.
Nikki has ensured that there is access to all at MRDC. Lunchtime sessions mean that learners benefit from attending MRDC but can still be part of their local band. The MRDC sessions are timed to not clash with other ringing so that local ringing is enhanced rather than diminished.
The Junior Ringers. This started with just two children from Mancroft Minors (the junior choir). It was slow to start and it is due to Nikki’s perseverance that 12 children now attend and 4 attend the separate School session. As it grows in success, it also attracts more offers of help from the volunteers and it has become a highlight of the week for everyone.
Nikki is constantly evaluating and reviewing what she does and thinking of ways to improve, not only at MRDC but also at her local practice night where she is Tower Captain. At MRDC, numbers are increasing at the Thursday method sessions while there is progression from Foundations Skills to Methods. Where learners are not already registered with Learning the Ropes at their own tower they are now added onto the MRDC list. Feedback is sought and actively encouraged and sessions are continually evaluated for their benefit and success.
Nikki is someone that many ringers in the region look to for advice, support and with the knowledge that she will take things seriously and come up with some good ideas. Furthermore she will support the development of those ideas. She is an encouraging and imaginative teacher. Her role at Mancroft is only one small part of what she contributes to ringing and her easy going, friendly and inclusive style, as well as her infectious enthusiasm makes her a worthy recipient for the Inspiring Leadership Award.