A visit to Ieper

On a Wednesday evening in a rather famous town in Belgium an unlikely group of Brits began to gather at a rather nice apartment in the middle of town. A retired railway signalling engineer, a paramedic, a physiotherapist, a former prison governor … what could they be there for? It could have been the start of a murder mystery week but fortunately it didn’t turn out that way.

What was about to ensue was a week’s bell ringing training and practice for some of the locals who had signed up to become part of the band at St George’s Memorial Church in the centre of Ieper. Built in 1928 out of the ruins of Ieper after the First World War, the church had a tower with no bells until a new ring of eight was finally installed in 2017 in time for the centenary of the Armistice. All that remained was to find and train ringers for them.

When the bells were installed, local publicity and the enthusiasm of the English vicar, Gillian and notably the church Events Organiser, Liz – herself a lapsed ringer – found numerous recruits locally. Liz is Tower Captain of the St George’s band.

We found that enthusiasm abounds for the bells and – if they only knew – for the daunting challenge of learning to handle them. There are about a dozen members of the new band and we first met most of them at a ‘meet and greet’ in the church hall. Food and cakes provided, Belgian beer (strong and wonderful) and wine at very small cost. They are certainly a hospitable bunch. The ringers have been on the receiving end of two one-week sessions of teaching, organised by ART; the first in February run by Graham Nabb (heard of him?) the second in March by Gill Hughes from Derbyshire. Our leader was Clare McArdle from Birmingham. Efficient, organised and resourceful only begins to describe how she set about her task. I don’t impress easily but Clare is one of the best instructors I’ve seen in action for a good while.

Thanks to the first two weeks of training, most of the Ieper ringers could handle a bell. Their earlier exposure to training meant they knew what to expect and they neatly divided into three groups who came in the morning, afternoon and early evening so the ‘teachers’ could find time to eat and recuperate between sessions. The first sessions inevitably were about assessment. We had some notes from Gill Hughes to prepare us and we quickly determined what everyone needed. Revision of bell handling; a lot of ringing up and down; making coils, ringing one bell alone (chaotic in a room 11 feet square!) and then rounds on two, three, four and up to six. As the week progressed we tried some of the exercises which you will hear about on ART courses but which were nevertheless new to me: Rounds…. Back Rounds .. Rounds! That is hard but useful and fun. Kaleidoscope ringing (highly recommended), Whole Pull and Stand; Mexican Wave. Never mind Spliced Surprise, I think all bands should try some of this stuff because it challenges your bell handling and listening skills to a degree you would not expect of ‘basic’ ringing.

As our week went on we could see even the slowest (generally code for oldest!) learners making progress. We learnt how to express some things in Flemish too: Rechts over!; Trekken! (you see that on doors) and other phrases. We learnt what we thought meant make a coil, but over a beer Marlies said she thought that really meant 'to get excited' if you see what I mean. Someone was having a joke perhaps.

But by the end of the week we had a band that could just about ring rounds together safely, who could ring up a bell, and who knew enough to go and practise bell handling skills in the tower without waiting for the next visit by ‘experts’ from England. They had enough ability now to ring with visitors from the UK who will be more frequent now that summer is approaching.

High spots of our week must include: being in the tower while a band of locals rang their first rounds together; ringing a Quarter Peal for Liz (not her first but her first for a very long time). Plus watching their delight at developing from total novices to emergent competent ringers.

Ieper is an interesting place. There is a weight of serious history with a cemetery around almost every corner, there are poppies on everything and plenty of buildings with the marks of bullets and shrapnel. Shops selling WW1 mementos jostle for space with chocolates and waffles – and quite a few designer clothing shops too. Ieper is a very civilised place a short drive from Calais and other Channel ports. I can thoroughly recommend it for a visit – and there is now a lovely tower to grab, with welcoming locals there too.

This account is also going to be published in the Ringing World.