The Learning the Ropes Festival of Ringing

The day of the Festival was heralded by a flock of tweets that fluttered around the twittersphere. Norwich was hosting a Learning the Ropes Festival of Ringing for newbie ringers from around the country:

Brace yourself #Norwich as over 50 learner bell ringers from all over the country are descending on the city for the national @RingingTeachers Learning the Ropes Festival. Listen out and enjoy. @StPeterMancroft @VisitNorwich

Nine months in the planning, the Learning the Ropes Festival arose from a collaboration between ART and the Mancroft Ringing Discovery Centre (MRDC) which ended up involving many ringers from Norwich and the surrounding area. It was a hugely enjoyable day for the 50 learners and the 50 plus volunteer helpers and leaders who made it possible and was a credit to Nikki Thomas, Ruth Suggett and Catherine Sturgess, the core organising team.

The Festival was conceived as a big teach-in organised around six two-hour workshops. At lunchtime it show-cased the two Mancroft bell ringing facilities with hour long sessions entitled ‘Ring Something Simple’ and ‘Ring Something Heavy’ at the MRDC and the 37cwt ring of 12– no prizes for guessing which facility hosted which session. Then there were the other events which turned this into a Festival of Ringing – the talks, the Carter mini-ring, the rope splicing demonstrations, the open towers and of course the cakes. The day in a quote: ‘My highlights included the huge number of laughs, smiles and high fives that I saw, especially with the two young, small girls and just the mixing of everyone at all levels’.

The Festival-goers experience

What was the highlight of this year’s festival calendar for you? Glastonbury, or perhaps Latitude? Well, for me as a novice ringer, the Learning the Ropes Festival held in Norwich on 3 August had the edge.

As with all festivals, the excitement started with booking my ticket and working out what I wanted to see and do. With talks, simulator ringing, an array of workshops spread out across several venues and open towers, this was a challenge in itself. How could I possibly squeeze in ringing at the MRDC, St Peter Mancroft, try out the Carter mini-ring and have a go at splicing a rope, all over the lunch break? I didn’t want to miss out on a minute of it!

Choices made, FOMO still high, the day arrived, and it was time for me to sign up for my ‘access all areas’ pass. First class act of the day was the Foundation Skills Masterclass, with Lesley Boyle and her rhythm section over at the St Giles stage. This was such an opportunity to learn from the best, with each learner allocated dedicated support from a crack ringer, covering all the foundation skills. How so many learner ringers got to have a go at so many skills, I have no idea. It was magical.

No muddy fields to navigate, as we then all weaved our way back through Norwich’s medieval streets to Mancroft for lunch and to soak up the atmosphere at the main stage. And no queuing up for dodgy burgers from a van either as the festival catering, especially the cake, was outstanding.

I quickly refuelled before heading on to one of the festival headliners – open ringing in the glass infinity ringing chamber of St Peter Mancroft itself. I was determined not to get stuck in any queues for the loo and miss this one. The atmosphere was amazing, with standing room only as thrilled learners took this fantastic opportunity to try ringing rounds on twelve in this historic tower. There was applause, high fives and hugs all round – and a missed merchandising opportunity for ‘I rang at Mancroft, home of the peal’ t-shirts.

Then back to St Giles for me to catch Lesley Belcher and her backing band for the ‘Say it out Loud’ workshop. This encouraged us learners to discover our inner ‘roar’ so that we could call changes clearly and at the right time. All us learners grew in both volume and confidence.

By now I was at festival overload and needed to chill, so sadly didn’t make it over to Colegate, Coslany or All Saints. Instead, I opted for the fascinating talk by Gareth Davies on the social history of bell ringing and was so glad I did.

So that was the Learning the Ropes Festival 2019. One amazing day and with no long-drop toilets in sight. Every learner I spoke to said they hoped it would happen again next year. So here’s to it becoming a regular fixture in the festival calendar. How about a weekend – with camping – and a beer tent …

Norwich Embraces the LtR Festival

It had been billed as an opportunity for learners everywhere to gather together, make contacts, attend some workshops and talks, splice some ropes, eat some cake and generally celebrate ringing and the culture of ringers. I met people from far and wide – perhaps fewer locals than I would have expected, but it was delightful to rub up against ringers from Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Nottinghamshire, London, Birmingham and many other places besides. There was even an experienced West Country ringer who co-incidentally was wandering around the city who popped by the mini-ring to say hello, and also the non-ringing partner of a ringer who happened to be out shopping whilst her partner was ringing elsewhere in Norfolk, who came and had a little ding, just because we were there.

And it felt like the City of Norwich embraced us all – from the churches which made their towersavailable for open ringing, through the city guides who made sure that people arrived at the right ringing rooms at the right times, to the townsfolk who peered through the railings at St Peter Mancroft church to see what we were up to and then visited the mini-ring to have a try. Anyone interested was then encouraged to contact their local tower to find out more – someone always has a Doves app on their phone for such occasions. The mini-ring proved particularly attractive to small children, who teetered on stools and demonstrated to the grown-ups that learning to co-ordinate the action required is much easier if you are still of an age to require a car seat, and very much easier if you have never rung a tower bell and so have no preconceived notions as to how it should be done. Needless to say, my feeble efforts drew puzzled glances from the children and a slight sigh of despair from my teachers.

There were some startling noises from the grand St Peter Mancroft bells at lunchtime, when the learners were given the opportunity to ring on the historic bells usually reserved for the highly competent – the absolute highlight of my day, and if I had done nothing else all festival, those few rounds on twelve would have made the whole exhausting jamboree worthwhile.

We had all been issued with coloured lanyards, designating whether we were learners, helpers or leaders, so as we wandered around Norwich from medieval church to medieval church we could be easily identified and also identify each other. Someone made the inspired suggestion that next time, if there were to be a next time, we should ditch the lanyards and devise a competition inviting the local population to ‘spot the ringer.’Could we be identified by our clothes, our sensible shoes, our facial hair, or perhaps the cake crumbs and satisfied grins on all our faces!

The feedback from the participants was very positive with one learner commenting: ‘(ART should) cover the country with the same’.

Early days yet, but churches are already being booked in Norwich for a second Learning the Ropes Festival in Summer 2020.

Lesley Belcher, Anne Tansley Thomas and Mary Jones