Last Thursday was our Spring Musical. There are three music teachers who come in to our school to give private lessons. Mr L (his last name is too hard to spell or even pronounce as it is Polish), who teachers guitar, there is a flute teacher whose name escapes me, and lastly there is Mrs Donnelly who teaches piano. Mrs Donnelly has the most students in the school and she also teaches a drama club on Friday afternoons.
The musical, to showcase all the talented kids, was held in the Waltham church. Each student who is taking music lessons came on stage to perform one short piece. The age ranges were from 6-11 and it was great to hear and see all of them give a real performance.
After the performance I stuck around to meet a gentleman named John. He is the coordinator for the bell ringing in the church, and every Thursday in Waltham there is bell ringing practise. Now the first time I heard the bells ring was after the Christmas performance as we were all in the pub across the street. I commented on how wonderful the bells sounded. I was then informed that our premises supervisor, Mrs Boylen, is the cousin of John the bell ringer. She told me that she could arrange for me to witness one of their practises, if I wished. Tonight we made that happen.
I met John at 7:45 and he immediately came across as a genteel chap, whisking me back into the church through the backdoor and straightaway up into the belfry. We continued up into the “room” where the bells are located, all six of them. It was drafty and cold and dark and exciting all at once.
The oldest bell up there is something like 400 years old, whilst the newest is only a couple years old. We went back down the incredibly small and narrow stairs to the belfry, and by now there were about 9 other people in the room. They are all part of the group that rings these bells and other bells across the Vale. Since there are six bells you always need at least six people.
The group has one hour to practise, so they start straight-away at 8pm. They begin by raising the bells, meaning that they need to rock them back and forth until they are at full swing, and then they can rest them upside down before they can begin practise. It was loud, but not too loud, and the look of concentration on everyone’s face was evident. You need to listen and watch what you are doing. A lot of uniformity is needed so that the sounds are correct, and when they are you can hear the music.
Once the bells were raised then they could begin to practise. They begin playing in rounds, then methods. I am not an expert at all on what they were doing, but I did my best to be convivial and to pay attention to what was going on. I was also polite by not taking pictures of them as I did not know if they wanted them taken. Most of the group was over 60 and I wanted to be respectful.
John gave me the opportunity to ring one of the bells. It was not that easy, but I could imagine with practise actually enjoying this. One woman was having a go at her sixth time practising ringing. She was a bit nervous but did a good job and John coached her along. I got a sense that you do not want to be the ‘one’ who makes a mistake, as it will throw everyone else way off.
They always need new people to learn how to ring. The knowledge is passed on through the generations. They try to get young people involved, but there is no pay and you have to find a love for the practising. A couple of the gents have been ringing for well over 50 years!!!
After an hour we were done. They lowered the bells, then hung up the ropes and shut the belfry down. Most of the group then headed to one of the pubs across the street, one I had not been to, so I joined in. It was nice to be out with British adults without my family, as it was easier to get conversations in. As expected they asked a lot of questions of me and found what I was doing over here quite adventurous. As well I was curious about their lives and we talked about a number of different subjects.
I had a great night and was invited to come back again. I think I will before I leave.
Here is a link to a video about the church and the bell ringing. The spire was damaged in an earthquake some five years ago. Many of the people in the pictures and video were present the night I was there. John is the tall chap in the glasses.