Learning the Ropes Masterclass, Birmingham 2017

Three or four years ago, in my mid-fifties, a friend suggested I should try church #bellringing and she introduced me to Lesley Boyle. I have always enjoyed exploring old churches, having been a boy chorister at St. John’s in Cambridge and subsequently a professional musician with a particular interest in historic buildings. Lesley invited me to have a go at ringing at St. Mary’s in Swaffham Bulbeck, where she is the Tower Captain and there is a decent ring of eight. If I had realised that what a good ringer she was and is, I might have been scared off, but the ever-modest Lesley and her team of regulars made me very welcome and I soon got the bug.

My progress has been steady rather than dramatic; I don’t have as much time to devote to it as I would like and my ability to learn and remember things is not what it used to be. Lesley, who is an excellent teacher, encouraged me to take part in the Association of Ringing Teachers (ART) ‘Learning the Ropes’ programme, which basically entails completing a list of tasks and receiving certificates for finishing each of five stages. Last Christmas, thanks to the generosity of several Swaffham Bulbeck ringers who gave up their free time to coax me through some hair-raising quarter peals, I just managed to complete the fifth level in time to qualify for an all-expenses-paid Learning the Ropes Masterclass in Birmingham in September.

In the meantime, I have been enjoying our Wednesday practice nights and occasional Sunday service ringing. I’ve visited twenty or thirty towers around the country and managed fourteen successful quarter peals. When the wind’s blowing in the right direction I can get through plain bob and grandsire without messing up. I’m reasonably good at hearing the bells but I need to work on my very poor rope-sight.

On 16th September I drove to Birmingham for the Masterclass. My wife came with me and Lesley also joined us, so I had plenty of moral support. I didn’t really know what to expect, except that I would have the chance to ring with the National Twelve Bell Striking Contest champions and therefore be completely out of my depth. I felt like a nine-year-old footballer being invited to play for Barcelona.

The proceedings started with an introductory session with Stephanie Warboys, the ART Awards Leader, who led a listening test in which we had to identify striking faults in a series of videos. The nine students were each given a pack containing information on all the tutors and the three churches where we would ring, as well as some goodies including an ART Masterclass mug. My tutor was Mark Eccleston, Conductor of the St. Martin’s in the Bullring band, whose biography confirmed him to be one of the finest peal ringers and composers in the country. Mark was unassuming and extremely helpful throughout the day, as were all the tutors and helpers which included Stephanie, Lesley, Group Leader Simon Linford, the Guild Ringing Master Arthur Reeves and Clare McArdle from the Birmingham School of Bell Ringing.

We walked to St. Paul’s in the Jewellery Quarter, where the Birmingham School of Bell Ringing is based and there is a small ring of ten (tenor: 12cwt). Mark helped me through my first ever experience on more than eight bells - mainly ringing called changes. I started to get used to the speed and picked up some useful tips. We then moved to the Georgian St. Philip’s Cathedral where there is a magnificent ring of twelve (tenor: 31cwt). The ringing chamber is like a museum of bell ringing history, bedecked with peal boards commemorating record-breaking feats. For my first attempt at twelve bell ringing I didn’t try anything particularly demanding, but mainly just tried to get my bell in the right place. Only two or three students were invited to ring in each touch, the rest being experts. This made it easier for us learners to keep right, and also it meant that the standard of ringing was (mostly) good enough for a city centre audience.

Next stop was St. Martin’s - home to the world’s first ring of sixteen (tenor: 39cwt) and the nucleus of the team which almost always wins the National Twelve Bell Striking Contest (we had photos taken with the trophy!). Here was another palatial ringing chamber, steeped in history and lined with world record peal boards. We rang called changes on sixteen and I didn’t find it easy, but at least I tried! The sound was extraordinary. In the evening, after a swift pint in Simon Linford’s famous pub, The Woodman, we were treated to a meal in a local restaurant. We then retired, exhausted, to our pleasant city centre hotel.

The next day we were invited to ring for Sunday services - first at the Cathedral and then at St. Martin’s. It seemed the entire world-conquering team turned up and I was invited to ring with them on twelve and sixteen bells. This was an enormous privilege and something I will never forget. Even more unforgettable was hearing the experts ringing touches of Stedman Cinques and Cambridge Maximus, and even a perfect touch of the extremely difficult Orion Maximus. Bell ringing just doesn’t get any better than this!

The weekend was a very special way to mark the completion of the excellent ‘Learning the Ropes’ beginners’ course. It was most efficiently organised and the tutors and helpers were welcoming, patient, unpretentious and generous with their time and advice. I am extremely grateful to all of them and to the Association of Ringing Teachers. What could have been a very scary experience turned out to be thoroughly enjoyable and quite simply inspiring. Now I feel energised enough to set about learning some more methods and improving my rope-sight.

Malcolm Creese, Swaffham Bulbeck